The 1970s and 1980s posed formidable challenges to LCRA.
During the energy crisis of the 1970s, the cost of natural gas — the fuel source for many of the power plants owned by Texas electric utilities — spiraled upward. Prices continued to climb throughout the decade, sharply driving up the cost of electricity.
LCRA and its customers were hit hard by the rising prices, because more than 80 percent of LCRA's generating capacity was fueled by natural gas. At the same time gas prices were rising, LCRA needed to add capacity to meet a continually increasing demand for electricity. LCRA's solution was to build power plants fueled by coal, which at the time was more economical and reliable than gas.
In 1975, LCRA began construction of the Fayette Power Project in Fayette County. By 1988, it had built three coal-fired units at that site, which generated enough electricity to meet most of LCRA customers' needs. (The city of Austin co-owns Units 1 and 2; LCRA owns Unit 3.) LCRA's other power plants provided the remaining power.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, the sleepy city of Austin emerged onto the national scene as one of the most desirable places to live. National media took note, and the attention ushered in an unprecedented boom for the region, transforming Austin into a major metropolitan center by the mid-1980s.
The population boom had devastating effects on the water quality of the Colorado River, as poor construction practices and runoff washed dirt, debris and chemicals from yards, streets and rural lands into the river, threatening the pristine quality of the Highland Lakes. Downstream, poorly treated sewage from Austin's overwhelmed wastewater treatment plants turned the river into a mass of greenish slime.
Residents and public officials pressured LCRA to do something. Although LCRA had come to regard itself as primarily an electric utility, it reclaimed its charter responsibilities for taking care of the river.
As the City of Austin upgraded and expanded its treatment system, LCRA worked with Austin to set new treatment standards to remove most of the pollution from effluent. LCRA also established nonpoint-source pollution ordinances designed to lessen the pollution and erosion that storms were washing into the Highland Lakes. By 1993, LCRA could declare that the Colorado River between Austin and Bastrop, which had suffered serious pollution problems, was once again safe for public recreation.
Responding to change
In recent years, LCRA has responded to the needs of Texans by providing energy, water and community services.
Electricity continues to be LCRA's primary revenue source. LCRA serves cities and electric cooperatives that, in turn, serve one of the fastest growing regions in the nation.
In 1995, LCRA pioneered the commercial development of wind-generated electricity, purchasing power from West Texas wind plants.
In 1999, the Texas Legislature authorized LCRA to expand its transmission services outside its traditional service area. LCRA has teamed with other utilities to provide much-needed transmission services in South and West Texas to improve the flow of electricity throughout the state.
The 1990s saw LCRA expand into operating retail water and wastewater utilities. In the ensuing years, LCRA owned and operated as many as three dozen such utilities to help basin communities bring aging and overburdened utilities into compliance with state and federal clean-water standards. In November 2010, the LCRA Board voted to sell the utilities to enable LCRA to focus on its core responsibilities of providing public power and transmission services, managing the river, promoting conservation and planning to meet the basin's future water needs. LCRA over the next few years sold almost all of the utilities.
LCRA has responded to growing demand on the basin's limited water supplies. A Water Management Plan, developed by LCRA in consultation with key stakeholders and approved by the state, determines how LCRA operates the Highland Lakes and the lower Colorado River. By the late 1990s, LCRA had purchased additional irrigation operations in Colorado and Wharton counties, acquiring the last large blocks of privately held water rights on the Colorado River to ensure their beneficial use for the basin.
LCRA successfully managed major floods in 1991, 1997, 2002 and 2007. In recent years, LCRA has been managing its reservoirs in the face of severe drought conditions and working to update its state-approved Water Management Plan.
To provide public access to the lakes and river, LCRA greatly expanded its network of parks. LCRA has more than 40 parks, natural science centers and access points throughout the basin. LCRA's commitment to environmental leadership not only includes protecting the river's water quality but also setting high environmental standards in the way it operates its plants, dams and other facilities.
The people who created LCRA envisioned an organization that would not only provide water supplies, flood management and electricity, but also would enrich the basin through environmental and community services. LCRA works to carry out that vision, ensuring the lower Colorado River continues to be a treasured asset for the people of Texas.