LCRA approves plan that likely cuts off downstream rice farmers

The Lower Colorado River Authority will likely restrict water from flowing downstream to southeastern Texas rice farmers in a reverse decision from the board of directors' original recommendation.

The LCRA board unanimously agreed Jan. 8 to limit all water for downstream agricultural irrigation unless the Highland Lakes reach a combined storage of at least 850,000 acre-feet on March 1.

Lake levels measure approximately 825,500 acre-feet as of Jan. 8, making it unlikely enough water will flow into lakes Travis and Buchanan before the cutoff date, LCRA General Manager Becky Motal said following what she called a "historic" LCRA board decision to essentially cut off downstream rice farmers a second consecutive year.

The board originally recommended in November that rice farmers receive water as long as lake storage topped 775,000 acre-feet on Jan. 1 or March 1. Had that request for emergency drought relief been granted by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, rice farmers would have received 121,500 acre-feet of water for their first crop in mid-March.

But since that Nov. 14 recommendation, many firm—or contractually guaranteed—customers have combined efforts to campaign against the decision to potentially allow water for downstream rice farmers. Many of those customers were represented again during the Jan. 8 meeting to voice their support for the revised recommendation.

Had the November-approved relief plan gone into effect, there stood an 18 percent chance that the Highland Lakes combined level could drop below 600,000 acre-feet—thus triggering mandatory conservation measures by all municipal water customers. Under the new plan, there is only a 3 percent chance of such a mandatory curtailment from occurring, according to LCRA staff estimates.

"I wish there was enough water for all of the [Lower Colorado River] basin, but that is not the position we find ourselves in," LCRA board Chairman Timothy Timmerman said.

Timmerman said the focus must now shift to alternative water supplies to accommodate all LCRA water customers. Plans are already in place for the board to review a new groundwater project and an off-channel reservoir that would collectively create an additional 100,000 acre-feet of water storage for downstream customers, he said.

"We are taking action," Timmerman said. "We are doing what we can and will continue to do what we can do."

Under the originally approved drought relief order from November, approximately 30 percent of all southeastern Texas rice farms would have been served from the 121,500 acre-feet of water, said Ronald Gertson, a rice farmer and chairman of the Colorado Water Issues Committee, which represents the rice farmers. That alone was not enough, he said, although it was still preferred to being cut off entirely.

"That 30 percent would have at least been an economic injection for our area," Gertson said after LCRA approved its revised recommendation. For a full crop, Gertson estimates the rice farmers of Colorado, Matagorda and Wharton counties need approximately 400,000 acre-feet of water.

But creating more downstream reservoirs would go a long way toward securing an alternative means for rice farmers to flourish without depleting Austin's lone water resource, he said.

"It's only a Band-aid if LCRA commits to giving firm water customers water from those reservoirs, too," Gertson said.

However, those downstream projects would ultimately benefit all customers in the vicinity, Motal said, including what few firm water customers exist in southeastern Texas.

In the meantime, many advocates from the lower river basin are asking Austin-area water customers to also bear some hardships incurred from the ongoing drought. Director John C. Dickerson, who represents Matagorda County, approved the recommendation but urged the board to consider additional drought relief measures if the Highland Lakes fail to reach 850,000 acre-feet of combined storage by March 1.

"Conservation is what I'm talking about for our firm water customers," Dickerson said.

As it stands now, if the lakes dip below 600,000 acre-feet of combined storage, automatic mandatory water rationing is put into place for all firm customers.

The LCRA board recommendation will be forwarded to the TCEQ, where it must gain final approval before going into effect for 2013.

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.