FROM STAFF REPORTS
AUSTIN — Without a tremendous amount of rain between now and 11:59 p.m. March 1, the Lower Colorado River Authority will cut off most water releases from the Highland Lakes for downstream irrigation purposes.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality approved LCRA’s request Feb. 13 for emergency drought relief. Under the request, LCRA will suspend water releases for rice farmers in Matagorada, Colorado and Wharton counties if the combined storage of lakes Buchanan and Travis isn’t at or above 850,000 acre-feet of water.
As of Feb. 14, the combined storage is about 832,080 acre-feet of water. An acre foot equals approximately 326,000 gallons of water.
“It would take a substantial amount of rain (to bring the lakes to the 850,000 acre-feet level),” LCRA spokesperson Clara Tuma said. “Even if we received a substantial amount of rain between now and then, it would depend on where and how it fell to raise the lake levels significantly.”
LCRA officials don’t foresee a rain event leading up to March 1 that would bring the storage levels to the 850,000 acre-feet mark.
The LCRA board asked TCEQ for the emergency drought relief action during a meeting Jan. 8. Later that month, TCEQ Executive Director Zak Covar signed off on the request and forwarded it to his board for its approval.
“This was the final step in the process,” Tuma said.
It was a historic step.
“I’ve heard people wonder how bad this drought is,” said LCRA General Manager Becky Motal in a news release. “Let me tell you how bad it is: The first time LCRA ever had to cut off water to most rice farmers was last year. Now, because of the severity of the drought, we may have to do it two years in a row. That alone should tell you this is no ordinary drought.”
The Highland Lakes, and much of Texas, has endured a drought since late 2007, with 2011 being one of the driest in history. In fact, 2011 was the worse one-year drought in Texas history. It marked the lowest inflows into the Highland Lakes. During that 12-month period, LCRA only recorded 127,802 acre-feet of water flowing into the lakes compared to an average of 1.2 million acre-feet.
In 2012, inflows increased to 393,426 acre-feet, still far below the average.
With TCEQ approving the emergency drought relief request, LCRA will only provide water for downstream agricultural uses if lake levels hit certain levels.
Under the emergency request, LCRA will:
• Provide no stored water to farmers in the Gulf Coast and Lakeside irrigation divisions if the combined storage of lakes Buchanan and Travis on March 1 is below 850,000 acre-feet;
• Provide up to 121,500 acre-feet of stored water for irrigation if the combined storage of lakes Buchanan and Travis is between 850,000 acre-feet and 920,000 acre-feet March 1; or
• Provide stored water in accordance with the current Water Management Plan if the combined storage is at or above 920,000 acre-feet March 1.
This doesn’t cut out all downstream irrigation releases. According to LCRA officials, even if the combined storage is below the 850,000 acre-feet mark March 1, the water authority will have to release about 19,000-20,000 acre-feet to the Garwood irrigation. This is based on the purchase agreement of the Garwood water rights.
For more information on the drought and water releases, go to www.lcra.org.