LCRA’s Board of Directors Wednesday approved a new Water Management Plan for lakes Buchanan and Travis that provides LCRA more flexibility to respond to severe droughts.
Wednesday’s 10-5 vote was the culmination of more than 18 months of work by LCRA and an advisory committee made up of volunteers from throughout the basin. The plan determines how water is allocated from lakes Buchanan and Travis, the region’s water supply reservoirs. It will now be sent to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for final approval.
“The Board should be proud of the complete and thorough vetting of this plan,"LCRA Chair Tim Timmerman said. “Board members showed that they can disagree about a weighty specific issue, but disagree agreeably. The people of the basin should be gratified in knowing that the Board, our stakeholders and the LCRA staff succeeded in revising a management plan for lakes Travis and Buchanan that seeks to balance a wide variety of needs."
The version of the plan approved Wednesday contains important changes recommended by the advisory committee, as well as changes recommended during the public comment period. Nearly 450 written comments were submitted to LCRA, and 49 people commented to the Board in person during meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday.
“Today’s vote is representative of the heartfelt passion that has been evident in the 18-month long stakeholder process,"said LCRA General Manager Becky Motal.
The new plan contains many changes from the current one. Among them:
- Using two trigger points during the year to determine how much stored water from the lakes is available for agriculture, mostly downstream rice farming. One trigger point, Jan. 1, would be used for the first rice crop and a second, June 1, would be used for the second crop. The current plan contains only a Jan. 1 trigger point.
- Eliminating "open supply," which is the practice of making unlimited water from the Highland Lakes available for downstream agriculture when the lakes are above a defined trigger point. In the future, the amount of stored water available from the lakes for downstream agricultural operations would have an upper limit at all times.
- Asking firm water customers, mostly cities and industry, to reduce water use consistent with their drought plans only after interruptible water from the Highland Lakes for agriculture is restricted. Current practice can result in LCRA requesting firm customers implement voluntary conservation before agricultural water is restricted. Firm customers pay considerably more for their water than farmers and other "interruptible" customers.
- Using two different projected future demand levels in the new plan to set triggers based on the amount of water used by cities and industry. The current plan is based on a single demand projection looking 10 years in the future. This new approach responds to actual growth in water use and could make more water available for agricultural needs until it is needed by cities and industry.
- Incorporating new scientific studies that better reflect the needs of the river and bay environment.
Also Wednesday, the LCRA Board adopted a resolution with a goal of implementing projects to find 100,000 acre-feet of new water supply in the next five years. Both of Wednesday’s decisions come in the midst of one of the worst droughts in the region’s history. Because of the record hot and dry conditions in 2011, the amount of water flowing into the Highland Lakes last year was the lowest since the lakes were built. This has resulted in some of the lowest lake levels in history and could mean that most downstream farmers receive no water from the Highland Lakes this year.
"Everyone agrees that we need to develop new water supplies and this is the start,"Timmerman said. “This is the solution to the competing interests of the upper and lower basin."
LCRA has used a state-approved Water Management Plan to manage lakes Buchanan and Travis since 1989. The plan was updated in 1992, 1999 and 2010. The 16-member advisory committee that assisted LCRA by making recommendations on proposed updates to the plan was made up of members representing the major, and sometimes competing, interests that rely on the lakes' water: cities and industry, environment, lake area businesses and residents, and agriculture.