TCEQ delays decision on emergency drought relief request

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has delayed action of a proposed emergency drought order intended to protect Austin's water supply until at least Feb. 21.

TCEQ commissioners on Feb. 12 asked Judge William G. Newchurch from the State Office of Administrative Hearings to come back with a proposed decision by Feb. 21 whether to deny downstream rice farmers Highland Lakes water unless combined lake storage reaches 1.1 million acre-feet by March 1. SOAH judges are assigned to conduct fair and efficient mediation pro for state agencies in order to reach timely decisions on controversial matters.

As of Feb. 12, lakes Travis and Buchanan hold a combined 762,000 acre-feet of water, well short of the 1.1 million acre-feet threshold set Nov. 19 by the Lower Colorado River Authority board. Unless lake levels significantly rise before March 1, downstream rice farmers will be unlikely to receive any Highland Lakes water if the relief order is granted.

A third year without irrigation water would be a death blow to the industry, according to multiple attendees of the Feb. 12 TCEQ meeting.

"We are those folks being asked to bear 100 percent of the burden of this drought," said Ronald Gertson, a rice farmer and chairman of the Colorado Water Issues Committee, which represents the rice farmers.

Austin Water Utility Director Greg Meszaros also addressed TCEQ commissioners during the lengthy public hearing. The utility has saved 86,000 acre-feet of water the past two years through conservation methods, he said, despite serving a large customer base—approximately 1 million customers and growing.

"Without Austinites' sacrifice, the lakes would have already plunged below 600,000 acre-feet, and we would have declared a drought worse than the drought of record," Meszaros said. "However, those sacrifices come with operational challenges that pose a risk to public health and safety."

For example, he said, flowing water is necessary to maintain Austin's water storage tanks and extensive pipe system. During drought conditions, the utility has taken special measures to keep its water supply from going stagnant, he said.

"If lake levels decline too rapidly we'll face many more of those kinds of public health and safety challenges," Meszaros said. "They'll multiply and intensify across our utility."

However, most of the arguments posed during the meeting addressed economic woes and not risks to public health and safety, Gertson said.

Existing regulations require LCRA to cut off irrigation water to rice farmers once lake levels drop below 600,000 acre-feet. At that time, firmwater customers, which are guaranteed water, such as Austin are also forced to curtail water usage by 20 percent.

But emergency orders prevent such conservation methods from occurring, Gertson said.

"What these emergency orders do is they separate those two things such as the irrigators get cut off well in advance of the firmwater customers being forced to take serious conservation," he said. "That was never the intention of the water management plan."

LCRA board members voted 8-7 to ask the state for emergency relief after contentious debate Nov. 19. TCEQ Executive Director Richard A. Hyde announced his support for the relief request on Jan. 27. No time or exact date has been confirmed for the SOAH hearing, which is likely to occur Feb. 20 or 21.

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.