A new $33 million plan to create more water storage gained unanimous approval Jan. 16 from the Lower Colorado River Authority board of directors.
The project aims to add a combined 100,000 acre-feet of water storage annually for the Colorado River basin by 2017.
LCRA will buy property in Wharton County near Lane City to begin engineering on a reservoir that is expected to store 90,000 acre-feet of water annually. The project's first phase will cost $18 million, with the total price coming at an estimated $206 million.
The Lane City reservoir would be built to hold 40,000 acre-feet but can be filled multiple times. The effort marks the first major water supply infrastructure project along the river since the 1970s, according to an LCRA news release.
"Not only would it be the first major reservoir built in the basin in four decades, but it's the first project in our history that would allow us to store significant amounts of water downstream that could be used by multiple customers," LCRA General Manager Becky Motal said in a statement. "That's vitally important to serving the needs of our downstream industrial and agricultural customers, meeting environmental flow requirements and taking pressure off the Highland Lakes."
The board also approved the installation of new groundwater wells in Bastrop County. If the project gains approval from the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District, LCRA will be able to pump up to 10,000 acre-feet per year to serve the Lost Pines Power Park in Bastrop County.
Janet Caylor of the Central Texas Water Coalition, which represents lake-area interests, applauded the decision to increase water capacity but expressed concern over where the extra water will come from.
"If indeed LCRA will utilize management policies to keep that extra stored water upstream in lakes Travis and Buchanan, then everyone wins in this," Caylor said. "The concern is the two major upstream reservoirs might be used to fill those new reservoirs."
But the new reservoirs should benefit all of the Lower Colorado River basin, said Ronald Gertson, a rice farmer and chairman of the Colorado Water Issues Committee, which represents the rice farmers. While LCRA officials said they intend on seeking as many financial sources as possible to fund the reservoir project, Gertson said the financial burden should also fall on the entire basin—and not just the lower three counties where rice farming is prevalent.
"Folks have a responsibility to help out with funding these reservoirs," Gertson said. "The reservoirs are for the benefit of the whole basin—not just the rice farmers."
During the Jan. 8 special meeting in which rice farmers were potentially cut off from receiving water from the Highland Lakes for a second year in a row, multiple rice-farming interests called on Austin-area LCRA customers to also share the hardship. They recommended mandatory conservation measures beyond those instituted by LCRA when the Highland Lakes dip below 600,000 acre-feet of water.
However, Caylor insisted lake-area residents are already suffering from the ongoing drought and depleted reservoirs.
"Why don't you talk to restaurant and marina owners that went bankrupt?" she said.
LCRA will officially cut off water to downstream rice farmers on March 1 if the Highland Lakes fail to hold more than 850,000 acre-feet of combined storage.