Updated February 3, 2012
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has approved LCRA's request to cut back or cut off Highland Lakes water to downstream farmers next year if the drought does not improve significantly.
The commission's unanimous decision today allows LCRA to deviate from procedures in its Water Management Plan approved by TCEQ in 2010. The goals of the drought relief are to further protect LCRA's municipal and industrial customers and ensure that water is not released to start a crop next year and then cut off mid-crop if lake levels hit 600,000 acre-feet. This would waste the water since the crop would be ruined if water were cut off mid-crop.
"Despite the recent rains, this is an unprecedented drought, which is why our Board of Directors decided to ask the state for permission to take this unprecedented action," said LCRA General Manager Becky Motal. "LCRA is actively looking for new water supplies and updating its Water Management Plan for lakes Travis and Buchanan. The TCEQ's decision today gives us another tool to continue to manage the water supply to meet our customers' critical needs through this extreme drought."
This drought relief plan was created from a compromise reached by a diverse group of LCRA stakeholders that included downstream farmers. LCRA's Board approved the plan Sept. 21 and sent it to the TCEQ for final approval. TCEQ Executive Director Mark Vickery approved the request Nov. 17, and the TCEQ's commission confirmed the order today. The order allows LCRA to:
- Cut off Highland Lakes water to farmers in the Gulf Coast, Lakeside and Pierce Ranch irrigation operations if the lakes contain less than 850,000 acre-feet of water on March 1, 2012 (the Garwood irrigation operation may continue to receive some water, consistent with its contracts);
- Allow a reduced amount of Highland Lakes water to be pumped from the Colorado River to the four downstream irrigation operations if the lakes contain between 850,000 and 920,000 acre-feet of water on March 1, 2012.
If a reduced amount of water is available for farmers:
- It would only be available for the first crop of the season (a second crop would be subject to LCRA Board approval), and
- Pumping would not begin before April 1 and would last no longer than 145 days or until 125,000 acre-feet is pumped.
If the lakes contain more than 920,000 acre-feet of water on March 1, LCRA would manage the water according to the procedures in its Water Management Plan approved by TCEQ in 2010.
Even with the recent rains, the current drought ranks among the most severe in history. Rainfall for the year is about 16 inches below average in the Austin area and the amount of water flowing into the Highland Lakes this year from rivers and smaller tributaries is on track to be the lowest in history. There is currently about 741,000 acre-feet of water in the two lakes. This is the third lowest level in history and could drop to the lowest level in history by spring 2012 unless there are significant rains. Long-term weather forecasts show a drier than normal weather pattern expected until at least early spring.