Following a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) ruling on a Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) request to curtail the release of downstream water stored in the Highland Lakes beginning today, critics of the ruling say they are confused and uncertain what the decision means.

While LCRA officials are not commenting on the ruling, Jo Karr Tedder, representing the Central Texas Water Coalition, a group of mostly Central Texas cities that depend upon water in the Highland Lakes and who advocated for strong support by the Commission, says she was stunned and accuses commissioners of catering to the pressure from rice farmers in the Lower Colorado River Basin.

At issue was an emergency request drafted by LCRA and presented to TCEQ last month that requested a variance from the LCRA Water Management Plan concerning the amount of water to be released from the Highland Lakes downstream on the Colorado River for use by lower basin users, including communities along the river and to farmers, specifically rice farmers in a three-county rice-rich area.

For more on Southwest water issues, please check out Southwest Farm Press Daily and receive the latest news right to your inbox.

The emergency request indicated the current state water plan is threatened by an intense, ongoing drought and the growing needs of "firm" water customers in Central Texas. The emergency request calls for temporarily curtailing the release of water downstream as a necessary emergency response to protect the health and welfare of people and property.

Not only have some lake area communities felt the pain of drought as water demand outpaced municipal water contracts with LCRA, in many cases it sent local officials spinning as lake levels dropped below intake levels, meaning intakes had to be lowered, projects that came with an unexpected and hefty price tag.

TCEQ denies request to set water trigger

During public comments made at several recent hearings on the issue, including multiple TCEQ meetings, lake area officials and residents told stories about running out of water and were advised to limit showers to only once a week. Fire officials across Central Texas testified they were concerned over having enough water resources to fight fires.

In addition to approving a water plan variance, the LCRA emergency request also sought to establish a minimum combined lake storage level that would control the release of water downstream if lake levels dropped below the minimum. If the level dropped to or below the minimum level, it would "trigger" the use of a standing emergency order that would decrease or stop the flow of river water downstream to interruptible users.

The idea behind the trigger level was actually born over two years ago when LCRA made their first of what now has become three consecutive years of emergency requests. For the first two years, TCEQ was asked to set the trigger level at 850,000-acre feet (AF), meaning if the combined storage level dropped below that, the emergency order would kick in automatically and curtailing water downstream would begin immediately.

But when LCRA issued the latest emergency request in December, it asked that a tougher trigger level of 1.1 million AF be established, meaning in effect that lake levels would need to rise over the 1.1 million AF level before lower basin water users would return to normal water flows and be allowed to take and use water from the river.

Lower basin users had their day in hearings and at TCEQ meetings as well. A coalition representing rice farmers, municipal water districts, irrigation districts and others testified that curtailing water from the Highland Lakes not only hurt agriculture, but also the trickle-down effect had resulted in lost jobs, a major hit on rural economies, and threatened not only water fowl and wildlife in the region but also the health of the shrimp, oyster and fishing industries in Matagorda Bay. In other words, it was a tragedy for the environment and ecosystem of coastal Texas.