Most downstream farmers will not receive Highland Lakes water this year

Cutoff protects water for cities and industry throughout basin

​Most farmers in the lower Colorado River basin will go without irrigation water from the Highland Lakes for the second year in a row.

This historic cutoff of Highland Lakes water became official at 11:59 p.m. on March 1, when the combined storage of lakes Travis and Buchanan was less than 850,000 acre-feet. That is the trigger point in an emergency drought relief order requested by LCRA and approved by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality on Feb. 13. Combined storage at 11:59 p.m. was 822,782 acre-feet, or 40.9 percent full.

“This drought has been tremendously difficult for the entire region, and we know that going without water for the second year in a row will be painful for the farmers and the economies they help support in Matagorda, Wharton and Colorado counties,” LCRA General Manager Becky Motal said. “This was a difficult decision, but LCRA has to protect the water supply of its municipal and industrial customers during this prolonged drought.”

LCRA’s municipal and industrial customers contract for water that is guaranteed through conditions equal to that of the worst drought on record. Agricultural customers, mostly downstream rice farmers, pay a lower rate for water that can be cut back or cut off during a severe drought.

With the emergency relief, farmers in the Gulf Coast, Lakeside and Pierce Ranch irrigation operations will not receive any water from the Highland Lakes this year. Farmers in the Garwood Irrigation Division are entitled to about 20,000 acre-feet of Highland Lakes water this year based on the purchase agreement of the Garwood water right.

The cutoff comes as the basin is caught in the grip of one of the worst droughts in history. The water flowing into the Highland Lakes, called inflows, was the lowest on record in 2011 at roughly 10 percent of the historical average. In 2012, inflows were roughly 32 percent of the historical average.

Last year was the first time LCRA cut off Highland Lakes water to farmers. This year marks the second time.

“The Highland Lakes were built to capture and manage water in times of heavy rains so there is water for cities and industry during severe drought,” Motal said. “The lakes are doing their job, but this prolonged drought means that we’ve had to make some hard choices.”

LCRA is also working on expanding the basin’s water supply. The Board of Directors has set a goal of adding 100,000 acre-feet of new water by 2017. LCRA is pursuing an off-channel reservoir in Wharton County and a groundwater project in Bastrop County to meet the goal.

“These projects would benefit the entire basin by decreasing the demand on the Highland Lakes and allowing LCRA to manage the water supply more efficiently,” Motal said. “We know the region is growing. The time to prepare for that growth is now.”

April 17, 2013, update:

The TCEQ order expires June 18, 2013. On May 6, 2013, LCRA filed an application with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to extend the emergency drought order until Oct. 15, 2013, to cover the end of the growing season.

June 19, 2013, update:

Because TCEQ had previously extended the emergency order through July 29, 2013, LCRA’s Board of Directors directed staff to file another emergency application asking TCEQ to extend the order through the end of growing season.

July 26, 2013, update:

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality approved an emergency order extending the curtailment of water from most downstream rice farmers through the end of the growing season. The order extends the restrictions on water from the Highland Lakes through Nov. 27, 2013. Under the order, most downstream rice farmers will not receive water from the lakes in 2013.