The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality on April 20 granted LCRA a permit to capture water from the Colorado River downstream of Austin during high flows and store it in yet-to-be-built reservoirs in the lower basin.
"This is a historic moment for LCRA and its customers," said LCRA General Manager Tom Mason. "The weather in Central Texas can swing wildly from violent rain storms to prolonged drought. This new permit will eventually allow LCRA to capture floodwater in the lower basin to use during dry times. This permit is the product of years of hard work and cooperation by LCRA, several environmental organizations, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Coastal Conservation Association, the City of Austin, and others to ensure that senior water rights and the health of the river and Matagorda Bay are protected."
LCRA applied for this permit in 1999. It was granted after more than 11 years of studies, collaboration and negotiations.
The permit allows LCRA to capture as much as 853,514 acre-feet of water a year during floods and other high-flow times and store it in a series of reservoirs off the main channel of the river in Wharton, Colorado and Matagorda counties. An acre-foot is 325,851 gallons.
These reservoirs are included in the potential strategies for future water supply in LCRA's Water Supply Resource Plan that the Board of Directors adopted last year. That plan is a road map for meeting the basin's water needs to the end of the century. The 2010 Census confirmed that Central Texas is one of the fastest-growing areas in the state and projections are that the growth will continue into the future, further stressing the Highland Lakes and LCRA's other water supplies.
LCRA has already started implementing some of the strategies in the plan by stepping up its conservation programs and beginning the process of amending some water rights to allow for more efficient use of the available water supply. LCRA's Board would have to approve any actions involving the funding, planning and constructing of reservoirs.
In addition to reaching agreements with the City of Austin and the South Texas Project Nuclear Operating Company, LCRA worked for more than two years with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation and Coastal Conservation Association to evaluate the best available science related to protection of aquatic species and habitat and negotiating the terms that were ultimately approved in the permit.
"The Conservation Alignment believes that the ideal result for Matagorda Bay's health would be for all of the remaining unappropriated water in the Colorado River to flow into the bay, but short of that, this permit contains a number of new approaches aimed at protecting the environment," said Ben Vaughan of the Coastal Conservation Association. "The permit also contains mechanisms to monitor the environmental impact of diverting water from the river to determine if the species in the river and Matagorda Bay are being adequately protected. This permit could potentially be used as a model for other basins to follow."
Certain environmental needs for the Colorado River and Matagorda Bay must be met before water can be pulled from the river under this permit.
"We appreciate the hard work of all of the parties involved," Mason said. "This was a complex and difficult process, as most water issues are, but it shows that by working together we can forge an agreement that works for the basin."