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LCRA urged to modify water-management plan, curtail downstream releases

AUSTIN — With Texas experiencing one of the most intense droughts on record and inflows into the Highland Lakes nearly at a standstill, some local leaders are calling on the Lower Colorado River Authority to change the way it manages the water supply.

One of the most pressing concerns is the release of water from lakes Buchanan and Travis — which are less than half full — to rice farmers downstream in Matagorda, Wharton and Colorado counties.

"I think the most important problem is the water-management plan doesn’t address intense droughts," said Burnet County Judge Donna Klaeger Aug. 24 before the LCRA board. "It’s very concerning."

Authorities say the state is experiencing the worst single-year drought since 1895.

The LCRA began looking into revising its current water management plan in 2010 and convened an advisory committee. However, figures from the most current drought, which began in October 2010, have not been taken into account.

Burnet County Commissioner Joe Don Dockery asked the board to consider modifying the committee’s proposed changes to include the most recent data.

"It includes data from the 2009 drought, but not this current event," he said outside the board meeting. "Which basically means, the plan is already out of date before it’s even adopted."

In spite of Dockery’s appeal, other officials — including Burnet City Manager David Vaughn — argued against tinkering with the committee’s recommendations.

"This is a package," Vaughn said. "Any deviation from the package changes everything."

Jennifer Walker of the Sierra Club agreed with Vaughn.

"I urge you all to consider this as a package. If any element of the package changes, I fear it unbalances the other elements," Walker said.

The recommendations went before the board Aug. 24. The members put off a final decision on the committee’s updates for at least a month to conduct a review.

Even if the board adopts the changes, LCRA officials said it would still be several months before the updated plan goes into effect.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has the final decision.

Several of the recommendations address the downstream release of water for agricultural purposes. Under the current plan, the LCRA can’t suspend those releases unless the combined water storage of lakes Buchanan and Travis is below 1.4 million acre-feet as of Jan. 1.

Under the current plan, officials can’t halt a release of water to rice farmers because the lakes have not fallen below that trigger point.

A proposed change would give the LCRA a second trigger point — June 1 — before releasing a "second crop."

LCRA officials said the current agriculture releases of 50,000-90,000 acre-feet of water run from July to October.

Dockery asked the authority to requesting TECQ authorize an emergency modification to the current water management plan to limit the second release.

Board Chairman Timothy Timmerman said the matter could not be discussed in open session.

One LCRA official countered the authority is following a plan that is working.

"We are managing our water from the Highland Lakes through the state-approved water management plan,"  said LCRA Executive Manager of Water Services Suzanne Zarling. "And (the plan) is working the way it’s supposed to. We are communicating with our customers — and our irrigation customers — asking them to minimize their use."

The board also heard a gloomy update on the current drought conditions.

October 2010 to July 2011 have been the driest 10 months in Texas since records have been kept, Zarling said.

Inflows — or the water that comes into the chain of lakes along the Colorado River — have dramatically slowed because of the drought.

From Jan. 1 through July, only 73,694 acre-feet of water has flowed into the Highland Lakes, she said.

The average for that period is 819,530 acre feet. In 2009 during the last drought, Zarling said 183,254 acre feet of water flowed into the Highland Lakes during that same seven-month period.

"And this month (August) puts us on a record for the lowest inflows ever to the Highland Lakes," she said. "The forecast doesn’t show any significant relief."