LCRA is providing water from its new gravel pit reservoirs to irrigate rice fields this week, marking the first time the experimental pits have been used for agricultural operations.
It’s still early in the pilot project, but this is an important step to help determine if the pits can reduce downstream demand for Highland Lakes water, said Ryan Rowney, LCRA’s Manager of Water Operations.
“I think we’re all confident that we can capture excess water from the river in the gravel pits,” Rowney said. “Now we have to determine issues like what the fuel will cost to run the pumps, and ultimately, whether this project will reduce demand on stored water from the lakes.”
The idea of using gravel pits to store water has been discussed for years among LCRA staff and area farmers, and was initiated as a pilot project earlier this year. The project is part of LCRA’s commitment to find 100,000 acre-feet of new water by 2017.
The pits are in the Garwood Irrigation Division in Colorado County. They can hold a maximum of 2,000 acre-feet of water and can be filled multiple times during the year, depending on rainfall and river flow. The pits can capture water that flows into the Colorado River downstream of the Highland Lakes. They also give LCRA the ability to recapture water that has been released from the Highland Lakes for downstream customers or environmental needs, but is not needed by the time it gets there because of changes in river conditions or customer needs. No water from the Highland Lakes will be sent downstream specifically for use in the pilot program.
The gravel pits are the first of LCRA’s potential new water supply projects, but others are in the works. Earlier this month, LCRA’s Board of Directors instructed LCRA staff to work with the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to determine if LCRA can pump about 10,000 acre-feet of groundwater in Bastrop County. The water would be used at LCRA’s Lost Pines Power Park and would reduce the power plant’s need for water from lakes Buchanan and Travis.
“These projects aren’t silver bullets in LCRA’s quest for 100,000 acre-feet of new supply, but they could be important steps to meeting that goal,” said LCRA General Manager Becky Motal. “All the easy projects to find new water in Central Texas have already been developed. It’s time to get creative and look at all options. Nothing is off the table.”
Because of the drought, LCRA will not send Highland Lakes water to farmers in the Lakeside, Gulf Coast and Pierce Ranch irrigation operations this year. Farmers in the Garwood irrigation operation are entitled to receive up to about 20,000 acre-feet of water from the Highland Lakes this year because of their contract with LCRA. Because of the recent rain, Garwood hasn’t used any Highland Lakes water yet.
The gravel pits are among the latest efforts to use water as efficiently as possible in the irrigation operations. LCRA and farmers have worked together since 2006 to laser level more than 25,000 acres, eliminating low spots in the fields and saving more than 7,700 acre-feet of water a year. LCRA recently finished installing 11 structures (called check structures) on the main canal in the eastern section of the Gulf Coast Irrigation Division that will allow operators to use water more efficiently. The project includes 22 new automated gates and equipment to monitor the flow of water in the canals. Crews are finishing testing the new gates, which will be used soon to deliver river water to Gulf Coast turf farmers.