Marble Falls, Burnet, Kingsland, Llano, Spicewood, Horseshoe Bay, and ALL of the Highland Lakes
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MARBLE FALLS — A state senator is asking the Lower Colorado River Authority not to authorize a second release of water to rice farmers downstream to preserve the Highland Lakes during one of the state’s worst droughts.
“I have great concern looking at current lake levels today and the impact that a second release of water will have on meeting future firm-water needs,” Sen. Troy Fraser said in the Aug. 22 letter addressed to LCRA Chairman Timothy Timmerman.
LCRA officials said they are not commenting yet on the request from Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, but the leader of a local water coalition applauds the timing of the letter.
Fraser released his request on the eve of the river authority’s board meeting.
“I certainly appreciate the senator’s assertive stance,” said Jo Karr Tedder, a member of the Central Texas Water Coalition. “As anybody who lives around here can tell you, the lakes are being decimated.”
Meteorologists say Texas experienced the driest nine months — October 2010-May 2011 — since record-keeping began 116 years ago, with the water levels of the Highland Lakes shrinking each day as inflows slow.
“Given this dry pattern and the continued predictions for more dry weather, it seems irresponsible for the LCRA to release a second crop of water, endangering the water supply for firm customers,” Fraser said.
Critics say firm-water clients — cities and agencies LCRA is under contract to supply with water such as Austin, Burnet, Granite Shoals and Marble Falls— depend on a stable water supply that is endangered if LCRA releases too much to agricultural interests in Matagorda, Wharton and Colorado counties.
“The current drought has already been named worse than the 2009 drought and many are comparing it to the drought of record,” Fraser said. “I am asking the LCRA board to consider another exception this year to ensure that firm water supply is available for future needs.”
The senator said LCRA should “suspend the release of water downstream.”
An official with Fraser’s office said the letter was released knowing the board was meeting Aug. 23-24 and that the second release downstream for agriculture use is scheduled for later this month.
Tedder said she hoped the LCRA board would listen to Fraser’s request.
“When you’re in a situation like we are now, you have to make some hard choices,” she said. “It really comes down to drinking water and the health and safety of people.”
The LCRA board convenes Aug. 24 at 8:30 a.m. in the river authority’s Hancock Building, 3700 Lake Austin Boulevard in Austin.
The drought continues to have an impact on the Highland Lakes. Fraser said the evaporation levels of the lakes are 14 percent higher than during the last drought in 2009.
According to the LCRA, the two main reservoirs — lakes Buchanan and Travis — are 45 percent full. Lake Buchanan is currently at 994.45 feet above sea level, but the August average is typically 1,011.83.
Lake Travis is at 635.36 feet while its average during August is 665.87 feet.
Texas rice farmers also depend on the river to produce crops during the spring and fall months.
But Tedder said the concern is that a second release to rice farmers for a fall crop could make matters worse for people who rely on the lakes for drinking water and other needs.
“We need to do something to protect this water, especially if we’re looking at a drought that goes through the next year or even two years,” she said.
The LCRA provides water for rice farmers as a so-called interruptible source. Hence, the river authority can curtail the supply when conditions such as a prolonged or intense drought warrant.
But under the current LCRA water management plan, only if the stored water in lakes Travis and Buchanan dip below a specific level as of Jan. 1 will the river authority curtail supplies for agriculture irrigation in the lower portion of the basin.
If combined water levels are at 1.4 million acre-feet as of Jan. 1, LCRA can interrupt supplies to rice farmers. If it’s 325,000 acre-feet, the authority can stop the disbursements completely.
A Water Management Plan Advisory Committee in July recommended the LCRA adopt two trigger points when it comes to determining the availability of water for agriculture uses — Jan. 1 and June 1. If on either of those two days the combined stored water in lakes Travis and Buchanan dip below a specific mark, than the river authority can curtail those irrigation supplies.
But the LCRA board hasn’t taken action on those recommendations.
Fraser noted in his letter the LCRA can ask the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for emergency measures to temporarily revise its water management plan.
In 2009, during another significant drought, Fraser said the LCRA “contemplated” asking the TCEQ for the temporary water management plan revision, but a drought-ending rain made it unnecessary.