LCRA Wrestles With Drought

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The Lower Colorado River Authority, the state’s most powerful river agency and one of its most controversial, met today in a special meeting to discuss a plan to deal with the drought next year. A board decision won’t be made until next week; today, staff simply went over the plan and allowed the public to weigh in.

As General Manager Tom Mason pointed out, the decisions the agency are faced with are unprecedented. The drought that began in late 2007 and, although diminished, still lingers on today has been the most intense in recorded history, worse even than the ’50s drought.

Despite a wet September and October, the Highland Lakes are still only at half capacity. Mason acknowledged that El Niño-driven rainfall may very well overcome the deficit, but said, “Hope is not a good water planning strategy. We simply can’t rely on that.”

In a sense, this is a long-anticipated Day of Reckoning for the Colorado River basin and the businesses, farmers, power plants, and the 1 million people that rely on it.

Something has to give because, if the drought persists, there’s just not enough water to balance all the needs.

But the LCRA staff, after pressure from various interests and some decent rainfall, has softened its position from last month.

Instead of asking for an emergency declaration from TCEQ, the staff has come up with a one-year plan that, vis-a-vis some creative accounting, diminishes the impacts on the river’s various users. Without boring y’all to tears, the plan has four main components, which I’ll try to boil down into plain English as best I can:

1) Rice farmers along the coast will receive sufficient water to plant their first crop. If LCRA projects that the Highland Lakes will rise to 70% capacity, then the farmers could receive water for a second crop. For the farmers, this is an improvement over what LCRA was looking at just last month – a declaration that could have curtailed all flows in 2010, wiping out any chance of a rice crop.

2) LCRA will ask the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for permission to allocate water that coastal irrigators don’t use to other downstream customers, such as the South Texas (Nuclear) Power Project, rather than flushing the water into Matagorda Bay. This would, of course, have a negative impact on the bays and estuaries, which rely on freshwater inflows to sustain shrimp, crabs and game-fish. But LCRA says it will still meet its legal obligations to provide “environmental flows” to the coast.

3) Temporarily suspension of all new water contracts until the Highland Lakes reach 70% capacity. A moratorium could call into question the viability of the White Stallion Energy Center, a proposed 800-megawatt coal-fired power plant near Bay City. White Stallion has applied to the LCRA for about 36,000 acre-feet of water. (To put that into perspective, the entire city of Austin uses about 170,000 acre-feet per year.)

4) Lift mandatory watering restrictions for cities that rely on LCRA for water but continue to urge conservation.

At the meeting, Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell bluntly reminded LCRA that Austin is the river authority’s biggest customer, one that ponied up $100 million in 1999 to guarantee water rights for the next century.

Leffingwell told the LCRA that city staff have calculated that if the drought were to persist for another two years, there would be only enough water left in the Highland Lakes to provide Austin with water for one year. Given that, the mayor urged the agency to quickly incorporate the lessons of the current drought into their water management plan.

Like other speakers, Leffingwell not-so-subtly reminded the LCRA board that the rice farmers, unlike cities, are “interruptible” customers that by definition can be cut off when water supplies get low.

Ryan Rittenhouse of Public Citizen brought up the likelihood that severe droughts could become a permanent fixture in Texas over the next few decades, due to climate change. It seems unlikely that the Gov. Perry-appointed board, including reactionaries like former TCEQ chairwoman Kathleen Hartnett White, are ready to hear that alarming message.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.