A man kayaks in the wetlands of Matagorda Bay Nature Park at sunset. (LCRA)

UPDATED: LCRA Considers Cutting Off Freshwater to Matagorda Bay


Updated below

In a hastily-called meeting today, the Lower Colorado River Authority board of directors considered whether to cut off releases of freshwater to Matagorda Bay, a potentially devastating move for the freshwater-dependent bay system and another blow to a community increasingly crippled by the drought.

After hearing objections from environmental groups and an emissary from Matagorda County, the board voted to release water in September but made the first step toward choking off environmental flows for the rest of the year. To take that drastic step, LCRA would have to get permission from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The discussion comes as levels in lakes Travis and Buchanan, the drinking-water source for Austin and other Central Texas communities, approach historic lows.  Across the state, the drought is intensifying fights among communities reliant on a shrinking pool of water.

So-called environmental flows are critical to the health of Texas’ estuaries and bays. Under LCRA’s water management plan, the water authority must generally let a bare minimum amount of water flow down the river into the bays each month. Runoff generated from rainfall downstream of the lakes can count against the 14,000 acre-feet total. If no water flows into the lakes, LCRA doesn’t have to release any water downstream for the environment.

“It’s survival mode,” said the Sierra Club’s Jennifer Walker. “Ninety-seven percent of the fish and shellfish species use Matagorda Bay at some point in their life cycle. It’s critical for their survival.” She said that the most recent science suggests that maintaing a salinity level of 25 parts per thousand during extreme drought is important for bay health. Levels right now sit at 32, just a couple notches below the salinity of the Gulf. Cutting or curtailing freshwater inflows could be ecologically dangerous.

Folks in Matagorda Bay, where rice farming and eco-tourism are critical to the local economy, have been largely on the losing end in the fight over a dwindling amount of water in the Colorado River. Mitch Thames, the president of the Bay City Chamber of Commerce, said he was upset that the LCRA gave so little notice about today’s vote. As an “emergency” meeting, LCRA didn’t have to follow the state’s 72-hour posting rule. Thames said he heard about the meeting mid-day yesterday, affording him little time to prepare. “I did tell them I was quite concerned that they pulled the trigger on this meeting so fast I wasn’t able to get voices from Matagorda County the three hours to Austin to speak on our behalf.”

Update, 7:30 p.m.: I asked LCRA spokeswoman Clara Tuma why the river authority’s board made the environmental flows issue an emergency item and received this reply:

We confirmed the deficit last week and moved quickly to get the matter before the Board.

We had a special called meeting already set for today, and it made sense to get this issue on the agenda instead of waiting for next week’s regularly scheduled meetings. Issues concerning water supply during this historic drought could pose an imminent threat to public health and safety.

If emergency relief was requested and denied by TCEQ, there  had to be enough time to send the required water to the Bay and have it arrive by the end of the month to comply with the Water Management Plan. It takes water about 12-13 days to get to the Bay from the Highland Lakes.

Correction: The meeting was scheduled on Friday; the agenda item dealing with Matagorda Bay was added on Monday, the day before the meeting. However, the meeting itself was not “hastily-called” as the original draft of the story stated. The Observer regrets the error.