Earlier this month, our staff told LCRA’s Board of Directors that at that time it did not recommend applying for an emergency order from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality regarding water releases for agriculture in 2013. Some news reports wrongly concluded that meant LCRA had already decided to provide water for rice irrigation next year. That wasn’t what happened.
As we said at that meeting, LCRA is continuing to monitor lake levels, study weather forecasts, assess inflows into the Highland Lakes, and use computer models to bring the best and latest information about the water supply prospects to the Board at its Nov. 14 meeting. At that time, we will provide the Board with the latest information we have gathered and the Board will decide how to proceed.
As staff noted at the October Board meeting, lake levels are higher than they were at this time last year. Also, at that time there was still a chance that an El Nino weather pattern would bring more rain to the region. That forecast has changed since staff’s October report was prepared, and that may affect the Board’s decision.
Many factors go into managing the Highland Lakes, which were built to rise and fall with weather patterns and customer use. They were never conceived to be maintained at a specific level. Inflows from tributaries, floods, rain events above the dams and rainfall in the lower basin – and, yes, extended droughts -- affect how much water is in the reservoirs and how much is available for customers, including for downstream irrigation. Mother Nature is the biggest variable in all our calculations.
Currently, combined storage in lakes Travis and Buchanan, the region’s reservoirs, is more than 880,000 acre-feet. Even under current conditions, the lakes won’t drop too much below that before the TCEQ’s existing emergency order expires at the end of December. Absent any further or additional emergency relief, releases from the Highland Lakes for downstream agriculture next year will depend on the current 2010 TCEQ-approved Water Management Plan or on a proposed amended Water Management Plan that now is pending at TCEQ. That amended plan was approved by the Board after an 18-month process involving stakeholders in the basin, including municipal customers, lakes-area residents, environmental interests, business and agriculture.
If TCEQ approves the amended plan, releases for agriculture will depend on the amount of stored water in the reservoirs on Jan. 1 or March 1, whichever is greater. Under that plan, if combined storage is approximately where it is now and there is 883,000 acre-feet of combined storage on Jan. 1 or March 1, farmers would be provided about 121,500 acre-feet of stored water from the reservoirs for first crop. Availability of stored water for second crop would be based on combined storage on June 1.
If the amended plan is not approved and there is no emergency order before contracts are issued for irrigation, water would be made available under the 2010 Water Management Plan. Under that plan, if the combined storage is at today’s level, LCRA would provide up to 183,000 acre-feet of stored water for irrigation.
It is not possible to predict exactly where lake levels will be in March, when first crop irrigation begins, or how far the lake levels might fluctuate between now and then. Our projections indicate there is an equal chance that next year the lakes will be higher than they are today. LCRA’s projections aren’t exact storage amounts but probabilities of possible future storage based on many factors, including weather conditions and seven decades of historical data.
Ultimately, TCEQ will decide which Water Management Plan LCRA falls under: the 2010 plan, the amended plan, or an emergency order if one is sought. I want to reiterate that LCRA is closely monitoring conditions daily. LCRA has not decided to seek emergency relief from TCEQ, nor have we decided not to seek it. No decision has been made.