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Most downstream farmers will go without Highland Lakes water this year

​With the combined storage of lakes Buchanan and Travis remaining significantly low, LCRA will not provide Highland Lakes water to most downstream farmers this year.

The historic decision became official at 11:59 p.m. Thursday, March 1, when the combined storage of the lakes failed to reach 850,000 acre-feet. That was the level agreed upon last September by LCRA, with input from stakeholders throughout the basin, including downstream farmers, when it determined the emergency drought relief measures that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality approved in December.

"This is the first time in history that downstream farmers will not receive all the water they need from LCRA," General Manager Becky Motal said. "This was a difficult decision by LCRA and the stakeholders, but one that was made with the best interest of the entire basin in mind. This current drought is one of the most severe on record, and the responses to the drought need to be on the same level."

Even with the recent rains, lakes Buchanan and Travis are only 42 percent full. The combined storage of the lakes Friday was about 847,000 acre-feet. Because storage was less than 850,000 acre-feet on March 1, farmers in the Lakeside, Gulf Coast and Pierce Ranch irrigation operations will not receive any water from the Highland Lakes this year. Farmers in the Garwood irrigation operation will still receive some water from the Highland Lakes this year, up to 19,000 or 20,000 acre-feet, because of their contract with LCRA. For comparison, downstream farmers diverted about 368,000 acre-feet of Highland Lakes water last year for a first and second crop.

Lakes Buchanan and Travis are the region's water supply reservoirs. They provide water for more than a million people in Central Texas, as well as industries throughout the Colorado River basin and farmers in Matagorda, Wharton and Colorado counties. Downstream farmers and some other customers can also pull water directly from the river when the flow is high enough. However, during dry years when the river is low, like last year, they depend more on water from the Highland Lakes.

LCRA operates lakes Buchanan and Travis under a state-approved Water Management Plan that determines how the water is allocated. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality granted LCRA's request for emergency relief on Dec. 7. Had TCEQ not approved the drought relief, downstream farmers would have been entitled to as much as 178,000 acre-feet of water from the Highland Lakes this year.

A diverse group of stakeholders provided input on a set of drought relief measures in September 2011 and LCRA's Board of Directors adopted the measures on Sept. 21. The stakeholder group included farmers, lake area residents and business owners, and representatives from LCRA's municipal customers, including the City of Austin. Many of these same customers served for more than a year on an advisory committee that helped LCRA update the Water Management Plan for lakes Travis and Buchanan.

The group judged that the 850,000 acre-foot level offered reasonable protection to cities and industries that must curtail their water use by 20 percent if combined storage falls to 600,000 acre-feet and the LCRA Board of Directors declares a drought worse than the Drought of Record, the 10-year drought of the 1940s and 50s that is considered the worst drought in state history. The group also agreed that the level was sufficient to ensure that water would not be released for a crop in 2012 and then cut off mid-crop if the combined storage fell to 600,000 acre-feet and the Board declared a drought worse than the Drought of Record. That would waste the water and ruin the crop. Farmers pay considerably less for water than cities and industry and, therefore, their water is considered "interruptible" during a severe drought.

In response to the ongoing drought, LCRA's Board of Directors has recently set a goal of securing 100,000 acre-feet of new water supply in the next five years.

"Last year was hard for the businesses around lakes Buchanan and Travis, and this year will be hard on the farmers and the downstream agricultural economy," Motal said. "Everyone in the basin agrees that the best solution is finding new water supplies, and that's what LCRA is working to do."