As lake levels drop, LCRA undergoes review that could lead to legislative changes

The Tom Miller Dam in Austin was constructed for flood control and generating hydroelectric power.

The Tom Miller Dam in Austin was constructed for flood control and generating hydroelectric power.

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The Lower Colorado River Authority is in the midst of its first sunset review, which could result in the Texas Legislature mandating the entity make changes to its performance and mission.

Organizations such as nonprofit Central Texas Water Coalition see the sunset process as an opportunity to invoke change.

The LCRA came into existence in 1935 by an act of the Legislature. It was created to address the flooding of the Colorado River, provide a source of reliable water and generate electricity through the construction of a series of dams.

“Before the LCRA, Central Texas did not have electricity,” said Bill Lauderback, LCRA’s vice president for public affairs. “In the establishment of the dams along the river, two supply reservoirs were created—Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan.”

A water supply reservoir is a body of water designated for supply, meaning it is going to fluctuate in elevation, Lauderback said. The rest of the Highland Lakes are considered pass-through reservoirs, and their elevation tends to remain more consistent compared to the supply reservoirs.

“[Supply reservoirs] are designed because we live in Central Texas where there are two phenomena—we are either in periods of drought, or we are in periods of a lot of rain,” he said. “When it is raining, we must have the ability to capture that water and hold it so it is available to us when it is dry like it is now. We suck water out of those two reservoirs and they go down—it’s a natural phenomenon. And we use a lot [of water]. We’re a growing area of the state, and we consume a good deal of water.”

Blame it on the rain

The problem is, the supply reservoirs are not refilling at a high rate.

“There’s no water coming in,” Lauderback said. “It’s not raining. The challenge of relying on reservoirs, or surface waters, is that you’re relying on rainfall.”

Lauderback said two things are primarily causing the current low lake levels. Consumption is up—the city of Austin’s consumption is up 11 percent from last year, for example—and it is hotter this year so the lakes are losing more water to evaporation.

"We have less water coming in by way of inflows, and meanwhile we have more water going out," Lauderback said. However, meteorologists are predicting a wet fall, he added, which will help refill the lakes and contribute to what he said is the natural cycle according to historical data.

Jo Karr Tedder, president and founder of the CTWC, said looking at historical averages is no longer effective when it comes to water-management planning. She said the crux of the coalition’s concern right now is that the inflows are not happening like before, yet large amounts of water continue to be sold.

“The weather has changed,” Tedder said. “Previously you couldn’t say climate change, but it doesn’t matter what you call it; we’re not getting the water we used to, so we cannot continue doing things the way we used to.”

Tedder formed the CTWC in 2011 after witnessing the creation of the LCRA’s 2010 water-management plan.

“It was evident really quickly they don’t give much credence to the need to conserve water in Central Texas,” she said. “So I formed CTWC to provide a voice to protect our water. We meet regularly with the LCRA, and they are always professional, but nothing changes.”

The sunset review is an opportunity for the LCRA to be evaluated “from top to bottom” for the first time, Tedder said.

“While I understand the business component [of the LCRA], they’re also stewards of the water,” she said. “Ninety-five percent of their money is coming from electricity generation and transmission, yet they were designed to protect our water. We do not think that is happening.”

Because the agency has existed for so long, it will take legislative action to create any significant changes, Tedder said.

The sunset process only takes the water component of the LCRA into consideration and does not deal with electricity in any way. Unlike other agencies that undergo a sunset review, river authorities like the LCRA cannot be completely disbanded, or “sunset,” by the Legislature but would be subject to any recommended changes approved.

“Water is nonpartisan, but it is so political,” Tedder said. “That’s just the way it’s always been here. There are scads of people who are making lots of money off the water, and they do not want to change.”

Sunset people

River authorities were first put into the cycle for sunset reviews by the Legislature in the 1980s. After several were reviewed, it was decided it was a waste of time, Lauderback said. In 2015, after statewide droughts, the state decided to put the river authorities back under sunset. Several were reviewed in the 2017 legislative cycle, and now it is LCRA’s turn.

The agency began meeting with the sunset review staff in May and will continue to do so until October, when the sunset staff will issue a preliminary report and go over their findings with the LCRA. The agency will have an opportunity to comment on the data found, and then a final report will be issued.

The Sunset Commission, made up of five state senators, five state representatives and two members of the public, will have a hearing in December in which the sunset staff will present its findings and report recommendations. Staff will also hear public testimonies about the LCRA. The commission will then adopt recommendations for the full Legislature to consider in January.

The CTWC also has met with the sunset review staff several times and presented its concerns.

“We gave them a thorough, 15-page document of recommended changes,” Tedder said. “We never say anything we don’t have the data to prove.”

Lauderback called the sunset process a “very public process.” He said it is good, thorough and makes everyone think.

Changes

The industry that drives lake recreation is another component that needs protecting, Tedder said.

“[The CTWC] had board members during the last drought who went bankrupt,” she said regarding the economic impact of lowering lake levels. “They lost all the retirement money they’d put into a little mom and pop fishing resort, for example, and that’s really painful to see.”

Buzz Watkins, vice president of Sail & Ski Center, vice president of the Friends of Central Texas Water Coalition and a Lake Travis Chamber of Commerce board member, said from a business owner’s perspective he cannot believe the LCRA continues to send water to farmers, considering the low inflows.

“The inflows are close to an all-time low, but they’re still letting water out of the lake,” he said. “This is a problem for businesses and people who enjoy the lake. The drought exposes the bad plan. If they don’t figure out how to manage this [low inflows and growing consumption] it’s going to be a crisis for our region.”

But if they do something now, Watkins said, it might not be too late.


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