LCRA seeks to suspend releases from Highland Lakes for fourth straight year

Historic action prompted by record-setting drought

With parts of Texas in the midst of a persistent, severe drought, the Lower Colorado River Authority will seek permission from the state to curtail releases of interruptible stored water from the Highland Lakes for downstream irrigation for the fourth year in a row.

LCRA also will ask permission to reduce the amount of water required to be released in spring 2015 to support the habitat of the blue sucker, a threatened fish that lives in the river downstream of Austin.

"This was not an easy decision, but we must protect the region’s water supply," said LCRA General Manager Phil Wilson. "More than a million people depend on water from the Highland Lakes, and right now, there is just not enough water for everyone to have all they want.

"This is a significant drought. At times, it’s been even more intense than the worst recorded drought in this region’s history, and we don’t know when it’s going to end,’’ Wilson said. "This action will help us manage our limited water supply to meet the essential needs of the region’s communities and industries."

On Wednesday, the LCRA Board of Directors voted 11-2 to ask permission from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to curtail releases from the lakes in 2015.

LCRA is requesting drought relief identical to the relief approved by TCEQ for 2014, which cut off releases of interruptible water supplies for most downstream irrigation.

The Board said it also would continue limiting outdoor watering by LCRA firm customers and their customers to a maximum of one day a week. Firm customers include cities in Central Texas that depend on water from the Highland Lakes.

The LCRA Board decision to seek relief for a record fourth straight year comes on the heels of some of the lowest amounts of water flowing into the lakes from streams and tributaries since the Highland Lakes were formed in the 1930s through early 1950s. January to October inflows were the second lowest for that 10-month period since 1942. The monthly inflows were the third lowest on record for October.

With this vote, the LCRA Board again is asking to deviate from the existing state-approved Water Management Plan, which determines how water from lakes Travis and Buchanan, the region’s water supply reservoirs, is managed. Without the state’s permission to deviate from the requirements of the plan, LCRA would be obligated to provide about 170,000 acre-feet of interruptible stored water from the lakes for agricultural purposes in 2015. (An acre-foot of water is 325,851 gallons.) Although LCRA recently filed a revised request with TCEQ to amend the Water Management Plan, these changes are not likely to be in effect in time to impact release decisions for 2015.

With combined storage in lakes Travis and Buchanan at about 674,000 acre-feet (or 33 percent of capacity), the Board determined there is not enough water available to meet all requests and still protect the region’s water supply.

The request would suspend releases from the Highland Lakes for most downstream agriculture users in 2015. However, even if TCEQ grants LCRA’s request, customers in the Garwood Irrigation Division still may be entitled to limited amounts of water because of an existing contract with LCRA.

Requirements for blue sucker fish

LCRA also is seeking permission from TCEQ to reduce the required minimum instream flow from 500 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 300 cfs for six weeks in the spring for the blue sucker fish, which is considered a threatened species in Texas. (One cubic foot per second is equivalent to about 450 gallons a minute.) The request is identical to the request TCEQ granted for spring 2014. If this request is granted, the amount of water that might be saved in 2015 will depend on flow conditions downstream. In 2014, this emergency relief saved about 17,000 acre-feet of water that LCRA otherwise would have had to release.

The lower flow is consistent with more recent science and still protects blue sucker habitat.

Increasing the water supply

LCRA is aggressively working to increase the region’s water supply. LCRA plans to break ground on a new off-channel reservoir in Wharton County soon. The reservoir will be the first significant new water supply reservoir developed in the basin in decades. LCRA also has drilled four groundwater wells on property it owns in Bastrop County. The LCRA Board of Directors has committed to increasing the water supply by 100,000 acre-feet by 2017.