High lake levels may trigger water releases for first time in five years

Increased lake levels and a new water-management plan all but guarantee downstream rice farmers will receive Highland Lakes water in 2016.

The Lower Colorado River Authority, the agency tasked with managing Central Texas’ water supply, had its water management plan approved by the state in November that essentially regulates how Highland Lakes water is allocated.

Lakes Travis and Buchanan are a combined 89 percent full as of mid-January, or more than 55 percent fuller than the same time last year. Consequently, up to 202,000 acre-feet—out of the combined 1.78 million acre-feet of stored water—could flow downstream should conditions remain the same as of March 1, according to John Hofmann, LCRA’s executive vice president of water. Another 76,500 acre-feet of water could also be released for the second crop July 1.

High lake levels may trigger water releases for first time in five yearsBut LCRA will not have to request a fifth-straight emergency drought order to protect the Highland Lakes water supply because lake levels are much higher than recent years. Much of the details from those drought orders were incorporated into the new plan, which received support up and down the Colorado River basin, Hofmann said.

“There’s no open supply anymore under the new water-management plan. That’s the fundamental difference from before,” Hofmann said. “The plan enables us to look ahead and say, ‘What happens if?’”

The new plan has no bearing on the city of Austin’s water contract with LCRA, according to Hofmann. Nonetheless, there is an effort by Austin Water Utility to make permanent once-per-week watering restrictions, which have been temporarily in place—nearly continuously, according to the city—since September 2011.

A Jan. 8 memo from Austin Water Utility Director Greg Meszaros said the proposed restrictions could make it to city boards and commissions by March, the City Council Public Utilities Committee by April and the full City Council by May for final approval. Residents were asked to provide input on the proposal during a series of January public meetings and open houses.

According to LCRA, the city’s drought policies have resulted in Austin using less water despite significant growth in recent years. Similarly, Hofmann said he does not expect downstream rice farmers to use all the water allotted to them.

“In most years, they won’t use anywhere near that amount out of [the Highland Lakes] reservoirs because so much water that flows south of Austin,” Hofmann said.

Construction begins in January on a new LCRA reservoir in Lane City that could capture some downstream rainfall. The 40,000 acre-foot reservoir, slated for completion by the end of summer 2017, could have been filled and refilled five times in 2015, based on rainfall totals calculated by LCRA.

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.