The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality on Wednesday approved LCRA’s request for emergency drought relief for an unprecedented second year in a row.
The approval means that without significant rainfall in the Highland Lakes watershed in the next two weeks, most downstream rice farmers will go without water from the lakes for the second straight year.
“I’ve heard people wonder how bad this drought is,” LCRA General Manager Becky Motal said. “Let me tell you how bad it is: The first time LCRA ever had to cut off water to most rice farmers was last year. Now, because of the severity of the drought, we may have to do it two years in a row. That alone should tell you this is no ordinary drought.”
Motal said the amount of water flowing into the Highland Lakes, called inflows, was the lowest on record in 2011 and the fifth lowest on record in 2012.
“LCRA didn’t make this decision lightly,” she said. “We know going without water will be difficult for farmers, their families and the local economies, but this is an extraordinary drought. We don’t know when it will end, and we have to protect the City of Austin and other municipal and industrial customers."
LCRA’s municipal and industrial customers contract for water that is guaranteed through conditions equal to that of the worst drought on record, while agricultural customers pay a lesser rate for water that can be cut back or cut off during a severe drought.
“I want to thank the TCEQ for their quick decision on this urgent issue,” Motal said. “Their fast action helps us tremendously in this difficult time.”
The commission on Wednesday unanimously approved the emergency request adopted by the LCRA Board of Directors on Jan. 8. The request was approved by TCEQ Executive Director Zak Covar on Jan. 29.
The approval from TCEQ means that LCRA will be allowed to provide less water to downstream rice farmers this year than required under the Water Management Plan, the state-approved plan under which LCRA operates Lakes Travis and Buchanan.
Under the plan, which is similar to the relief TCEQ granted in 2011 that led to most downstream farmers doing without Highland Lakes water in 2012, water would be cut off to most downstream rice farmers unless the combined storage of lakes Buchanan and Travis is at or above 850,000 acre-feet at 11:59 p.m. on March 1, 2013. The plan approved by TCEQ will:
- Provide no stored water to farmers in the Gulf Coast and Lakeside irrigation divisions if the combined storage on March 1 is below 850,000 acre-feet;
- Provide up to 121,500 acre-feet of stored water for irrigation if the combined storage is between 850,000 acre-feet and 920,000 acre-feet on March 1; or
- Provide stored water in accordance with the current Water Management Plan if the combined storage is at or above 920,000 acre-feet on March 1.
Combined storage on Feb. 13 is 832,000 acre-feet, and it appears unlikely the combined storage will top 850,000 acre-feet on March 1.
Even if combined storage is less than 850,000 acre-feet on March 1, farmers in the Garwood irrigation operation will still receive some water from the Highland Lakes this year, about 19,000 to 20,000 acre-feet, based on the purchase agreement of the Garwood water rights.
Motal said the need for emergency relief two years in a row illustrates why LCRA is moving ahead rapidly with plans for a new downstream reservoir in Wharton County. That reservoir near Lane City would capture water that comes into the Colorado River downstream of Lake Travis and save it for beneficial use. LCRA now has no way to capture that water before it flows into Matagorda Bay.
“This new reservoir will benefit everyone in the basin by taking some of the demand off lakes Travis and Buchanan,” Motal said.
The LCRA Board approved preliminary plans for the new reservoir on Jan. 8.