Water priorities begin taking shape

Cedar Park, Leander weigh in on critical policies and projects

Cedar Park and Leander's pursuit of a reliable water supply has become more dramatic in recent months as significant policy changes and infrastructure projects come closer to reality.

Officials from each city have worked with regional and state policymakers to ensure Lake Travis remains a long-term water source. If successful, their efforts could help result in a permanent deep-water intake pipe at Lake Travis, a new Lower Colorado River Authority water management plan and $2 billion in statewide water infrastructure projects.

Their sense of urgency increases with each bleak weather forecast. State Climatologist John Nielson-Gammon said precipitation levels so far this spring are below normal, likely resulting in above-average temperatures this summer.

Nielson-Gammon, a Texas A&M University atmospheric science professor, said Central Texas is more flood-prone than other parts the state, a fact that could bode well if a significant tropical storm approaches the area. He estimates that 10 to 20 inches of consistent rainfall during a two- to three-day period could end a drought for a very concentrated region.

"We may see one or two of those events, so maybe part of the state will do fairly well," he said. "Of course, it's not possible to say where and when those will occur."

Rather than count on such a storm, authorities are actively working on alternatives they hope will ensure water security.

Deep-water intake pipe

Tom Gallier was hired as the new Brushy Creek Regional Utility Authority general manager so he could implement the utility's second phase of construction—an underground pipeline through Volente that connects a deep-water intake in Lake Travis to a pump station, which then transports raw water to the BCRUA plant in Cedar Park.

But immediately upon his arrival in late March, the 30-year water industry veteran discovered a more pressing matter. As soon as September, worst-case weather projections suggest BCRUA may be forced to relocate its shallow intake pipe farther from the Lake Travis shoreline. Doing so ensures the water plant continues operating smoothly, he said, although pumping water would consequently become more difficult and expensive.

"It's just a massive effort to move these pumps around, and they're still not as reliable [than before moving the pumps]," Gallier said.

Seeking a more permanent approach, BCRUA board members in March met with LCRA General Manager Becky Motal, who agreed to let the group proceed on potentially building a pump station on LCRA land on Lime Creek Road between Cedar Park's existing water treatment plant and Sandy Creek Park.

"We were going to ask them to do that anyway, so we were ecstatic," said BCRUA Vice President Mitch Fuller, who also serves as Cedar Park mayor pro tem. "This allows us to control our own destiny."

Because the LCRA-owned space is parkland, there must first be a series of public hearings, said Chris Fielder, BCRUA president and Leander mayor. No public hearing dates have yet been established.

"We want to secure the land, engineer the project and essentially have it dirt-ready the day we say we need the deep-water intake so that we're ready to go," said Fielder, who explained how the project will help Leander, Cedar Park and Round Rock fill the needs of their respective cities even if they reach maximum capacity. "Everyone is waiting on build out."

Water management plan

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality on April 17 filed its technical review of the proposed LCRA water management plan, which was first adopted by lake-area stakeholders in July 2011 and by the LCRA board of trustees in February 2012.

TCEQ approved most all of the proposed changes, including the use of two annual trigger points—one Jan. 1 and a second on June 1—instead of one to decide how much Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan water should be sent to downstream rice farmers. Also, agricultural water use must be restricted before LCRA can ask its firm water customers—mostly municipalities—to do the same.

The only proposed change TCEQ nixed was a "dry-year exception" clause that granted LCRA's board authority to change the water management plan during drought conditions without first gaining commission approval.

Ronald Gertson, a rice farmer and chairman of the Colorado Water Issues Committee, which represents the rice farmers, said there is one change he wish had not made it past TCEQ. The revised plan eliminates open supply, the practice of not restricting stored water from flowing to downstream farms when the lakes are above a defined trigger point. If the lakes are full, he said, there is no point in withholding excess water.

"If we can correct that problem, then it will precipitate corrections of seemingly more minor issues in the plan," Gertson said. "Then I suspect we would not stand in the way of the thing moving forward."

Contested public hearings are nonetheless anticipated, with at least one protest expected from the Central Texas Water Coalition, a group of lake-area interests. CTWC President Jo Karr Tedder said the water management plan does not factor in weather data from 2010–12. She said the "new normal" must be taken into account when considering how much water to allocate from the Highland Lakes.

"Change is very, very hard, and it's always easier to tweak with the status quo then to step back and take a new look at what we've got," Karr Tedder said. "What has been normal since 2006 is no longer the normal. There's been a paradigm shift."

New to the mix is the Highland Lakes Firm Water Customer Cooperative, composed mostly of municipal LCRA water customers—including Cedar Park and Leander. The group is reviewing the TCEQ-approved plan before submitting any comments.

According to TCEQ spokesman Terry Clawson, relevant groups and associations have until May 28 to make comments, submit protests or request a public hearing. As of May 2, three public hearing requests have been filed. TCEQ commissioners will either send any protests or public hearings to the State Office of Administrative Hearings or reject the requests entirely, Clawson said.

Water infrastructure needs

In his 2013 State of the State address, Gov. Rick Perry expressed the need for a one-time expenditure to fund major water projects throughout Texas.

Texas House of Representatives leaders hatched a plan to pull $2 billion from the state's Rainy Day Fund to pay for a revolving loan program for major water projects. The money could contribute to a Wharton County reservoir, which would hold up to 90,000 acre-feet of water per year that would likely go toward downstream LCRA customers—thus allowing more water to remain in the Highland Lakes.

The effort was set for a House vote April 29 but was delayed on a technicality by some Democratic opponents. The water funding bill failed to return for debate that week and will likely have to return to the floor as a Senate bill or as part of another bill later this legislative session, which ends May 27.

House Speaker Joe Straus issued a statement to express his frustrations over the delay.

"Speaker Straus will not let a technicality seal the debate on water and remains committed to working with appropriators, members of the House and stakeholders to ensure funding for the state water plan this session," the statement read.

Echoing that sentiment, House Natural Resources Chairman Allan Ritter, R-Nederland, said lawmakers are determined to get the bill passed and not push off the priority for another session.

"It's still in the works," Ritter said, "but we will get water done."

Lawmakers also know that if they cannot pass the water plan this session, chances are high that the governor will call a special session some time over the summer to try again.

A different House bill working its way through a Senate conference committee could potentially reignite the discussion, but no vote was scheduled as of Community Impact Newspaper's deadline.

Additional reporting by Capitol Correspondent Karen Brooks Harper.

By Joe Lanane
Joe Lanane’s career is rooted in community journalism, having worked for a variety of Midwest-area publications before landing south of the Mason-Dixon line in 2011 as the Stillwater News-Press news editor. He arrived at Community Impact Newspaper in 2012, gaining experience as editor of the company’s second-oldest publication in Leander/Cedar Park. He eventually became Central Austin editor, covering City Hall and the urban core of the city. Lanane leveraged that experience to become Austin managing editor in 2016. He managed eight Central Texas editions from Georgetown to San Marcos. Working from company headquarters, Lanane also became heavily involved in enacting corporate-wide editorial improvements. In 2017, Lanane was promoted to executive editor, overseeing editorial operations throughout the company. The Illinois native received his bachelor’s degree from Western Illinois University and his journalism master’s degree from Ball State University.


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