Officials call for action as LCRA revises area water plan

The February approval of a revised Water Management Plan by the Lower Colorado River Authority board of directors issued a staunch warning to regional water stakeholders: The implications of Texas' recent dry weather has wreaked havoc on the state's water storage, and as the population continues to grow exponentially, more plans must be made to ensure water is available for future generations.

"[Texas is] projected to double our population in the next 50 years, and we currently do not have the water to support that future growth," Travis County Commissioner Karen Huber said. "Water policymaking in Texas is fragmented, and as a result, no one takes responsibility for actually solving bigger problems. We must figure out how to change this and change it soon."

As of March 23, the combined storage of lakes Buchanan and Travis was 959,445 acre-feet of water. On average, the lakes sit at 1.67 million acre-feet of water. Although recent rains have helped the lakes to rise, it is not enough to take the region out of danger, stakeholders say.

"What you need to think about with this drought is that all it's really done is put into very sharp focus the fact that there are an enormous number of people sharing a very fixed resource," said Laura Huffman, Texas state director of The Nature Conservancy, during a January water use and management panel hosted by local nonprofit group Leadership Austin. "As water is the No. 1 issue facing the world, it is easily the No. 1 issue facing the state of Texas."

A cause for concern

About 97 percent of Earth's water is salty and 2.5 percent is locked in ice, Huffman said, adding that "we are fueling the entire planet with the half percent that is left."

And while Texas has a water plan that outlines how its water supply should be used and managed in the coming years, state government has yet to devote funding to the plan to implement it. This is a huge hurdle the state will continue to encounter as it plans for the demand it will place on its resources, she said.

"The state's water plan is a $53 billion unfunded list of projects and ideas at this point," Huffman said. "The thing that [we] are most concerned with is that the plan says 25 percent of our future water supply is going to come from conservation. It'd be good to have a game plan, right?"

The water plan calls for several new management strategies, including requiring LCRA to implement off-channel reservoirs, agricultural water conservation and new or amended surface water rights. In all, the strategies included in the Lower Colorado regional water plan would create more than 640,000 acre-feet of additional water supply by 2060.

But because Texas has not funded its water plan, it may send mixed signals to residents about water conservation, Huber said.

"We do not have a culture of conservation, and the public needs education to embrace it," she said. "It takes a long time to make culture changes, and we need to get started."

Revising a plan for the future

In February, the LCRA board of directors approved a revision for its own Water Management Plan for lakes Buchanan and Travis, an action that served as the end of an 18-month initiative. The approval of the plan, devised to allow LCRA more flexibility to respond to severe droughts, has been passed on to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for its final approval.

The plan, which was first approved by the State of Texas in 1989 and revised in 1992, 1999 and 2010, made several changes, including using two trigger points during the year to determine how much stored water is available for agricultural use. The current plan only contains one trigger point—on Jan. 1. The revised plan adds a second trigger point on June 1.

The plan now asks firm water customers, such as the City of Austin, to reduce water use consistent with their drought plans only after interruptible water from the Highland Lakes for agriculture is restricted. The current plan calls for implementation of voluntary restrictions by municipalities after agricultural water use is restricted.

The LCRA board also adopted a new resolution that sets a new goal—to find 100,000 acre-feet of new water supply in five years.

But still, there is worry that the TCEQ may not approve the plan in time to make it effective now, Huber said.

"Last time, it took the TCEQ years to finalize it," Huber said. "It can still be changed, and competing interests will be trying to get amendments to it while it goes through the TCEQ process. The plan is not the answer to everything, but it is, as submitted to TCEQ, an extremely important first step for better assurance that our basic water supply needs on the Highland Lakes will be met."

Securing water supplies

The City of Austin actively attempts to work with residents to help conserve water, Austin Utility Director Greg Mozeras said.

"Austin's conservation programs didn't start with this drought," Mozeras said. "Austin offers all kinds of free services. If you want us to come out and check your irrigation system, it's free. We'll have experts come out, optimize your irrigation system and give you advice on how to save water."

For Huber, she said residents can help sustain Texas' water supply by becoming involved in local activist groups and by voicing their concerns to elected officials.

"Homeowners need to get worried and educate themselves about water and what the future holds," she said. "Water will cost more in the future and there will be less of it. The sooner we can begin to start implementing solutions for our dwindling water supplies, the better off we will be in the future."