Did drought or LCRA get us here?
June 26, 2013, 9:00 pm by James Walker
When they appear at a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality meeting for Highland Lakes stakeholders today in Austin, lakes interests hope to impress upon the commissioners their belief that the lakes have been devastated as much by poor water management by the Lower Colorado River Authority as by an ongoing record-setting drought.
Lakes interests have long been critical of LCRA’s management of the water in the lakes and are skeptical of the authority staff’s ability and willingness to ensure that water for drinking and other vital household needs is preserved in the lakes.
TCEQ, the state’s primary regulatory agency on matters involving water, air and other environmental concerns, will host the stakeholders meeting as part of its effort to decide on how to proceed in dealing with the LCRA’s proposed water management plan for the lakes.
The meeting is scheduled for 2 p.m. at the TCEQ complex, 12100 Park 35 Circle, Building E in Austin.
The LCRA cannot implement an updated water management plan until TCEQ’s commissioners sign off on it and earlier this month TCEQ executive director Zak Covar essentially rejected the plan, citing outdated and insufficient data.
Covar apparently reacted to behind the scenes pressure and urging by state senators Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay) and Kirk Watson (D-Austin) as well as data and modeling scenarios commissioned by the Central Texas Water Coalition and the City of Austin.
Fraser and Watson contended and the CTWC and Austin studies showed that LCRA’s data and modeling scenarios used to formulate the water management plan did not include data from 2010, 2011 and 2012, three of the hottest and driest years in the state’s recorded history.
TCEQ will gather its own data and run its own modeling scenarios before ruling on the water management plan, Covar said.
Lakes stakeholders hope to impress upon TCEQ their belief that the dry years of 2010, 2011 and 2012 represent a new normal that should be factored into an updated water management plan, said Jo Karr Tedder, president of the CentraL Texas Water Coalition, which has advocated for better management by LCRA of the water in the lakes.
"It will do no good, or very little good, if they simply add the data for those years to the historical record and adjust the averages,” Tedder said. "We are dealing with significantly changed conditions and the lakes should be managed accordingly.”
The drought and LCRA’s disastrous decision to ship more than 450,000 acre feet of water downstream for use by rice farmers in Matagorda, Wharton and Colorado counties in 2011 devastated the reservoirs and they have not come close to significantly recharging since then.
"We have run out of water,” Burnet County Judge Donna Klaeger said at Tuesday's Commissioners Court meeting. "”It's not if, not when. We have run out of water.”
"LCRA had a chance in 2011 to preserve the water in the lakes and they blew it,” Tedder said. "We are all paying the price for that now.”
The Highland Lakes are the primary drinking water source for more than a million people in Central Texas, and the Buchanan and Travis reservoirs had a combined storage of 758,000 acre feet of water Tuesday, which is 38 percent of capacity.
On June 25, 2011, the combined storage of Buchanan and Travis was 788,000 acre feet.
The lakes levels have been dropping at the rate of 1,000 to 3,000 acre feet a day for the past several days and LCRA officials said that barring unforseen heavy rains, they will fall to 600,000 acre feet in September.
That would mean the region is in a new drought of record and put LCRA and all stakeholders in uncharted territory.
"LCRA should have a plan and I don't believe they have one for how to deal with a new drought of record,” Klaeger said.
"What is their plan for when water in Lake Buchanan cannot flow through the dam and they need drinking water in Austin?” Tedder asked in briefing the commissioners Tuesday. "They (LCRA staff) have no answer. They are deluding themselves and I think they are still hoping it will rain.”
Lakes interests still are disgusted about the events of less than a year ago in a LCRA board of directors meeting in Fredericksburg in November when the staff recommended a plan that if implemented almost certainly would have resulted in another large amount of water being released for use by the rice farmers.
Inflows into the Colorado River throughout the upper basin this year are about the same as 2011’s record-low flows, LCRA said in a press release Monday.
Inflows from the rivers and streams that feed the lake hit an all-time low in 2011, were the fifth-lowest ever in 2012 and are about the same in 2013 as they were this time of the year in 2011, the LCRA statement said.
"We’re not going to run out of water, but everyone needs to understand that this is a serious situation,” LCRA General Manager Becky Motal said. "It’s going to take a significant amount of rain over an extended period of time to refill our lakes. We don’t know when that will happen, so it’s critical that everyone follow the watering restrictions put in place by their local water providers and conserve water wherever and whenever they can.”
Burnet County and Llano County will be well represented with Lake Buchanan residents and business owners planning to show up in force as well as a significant number with Lake Travis connections.
"We’ll be there wearing our Pray for Rain but Plan for Drought buttons,” Tedder said. "We are urging everyone to show up and be a face of the lakes.”
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