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AUSTIN — The Highland Lakes could get some relief in the future from downstream water demands if the Lower Colorado River Authority gets a new reservoir built.

The LCRA board approved putting $18 million toward the 1,125-acre reservoir during its Jan. 16 meeting. The goal is to build the lake near Lane City in Wharton County, which could provide an additional 90,000 acre-feet of water each year, officials said.

This initial money would help purchase the property and begin the engineering and permitting for the project.

Currently, the LCRA provides water for customers that primarily comes from lakes Buchanan and Travis. But the current drought has dropped those reservoir levels to about 42 percent of their capacity.

Earlier in January, the board approved a resolution asking the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to allow the water authority to suspend releases for downstream agricultural irrigation if the two reservoirs combined storage was below 850,000 acre feet March 1.

The combined storage is currently at 837,000 acre feet.

An acre foot of water is about 325,000 gallons or the amount a suburban household uses in one year.

The recent action sets in motion the development of a new reservoir that could help wean irrigators in Wharton, Matagorda and Colorado counties off some of their dependency on Highland Lakes water.

LCRA spokeswoman Clara Tuma previously told The Picayune the entire project would cost about $200 million.

“This is part of the goal that the board set to develop an additional 100,000 acre feet of water for the basin,” she said.

The LCRA would try to utilize grants, loans and other outside funding sources to cover the cost of the project, officials said.

“This is a historic project on many levels,” LCRA General Manager Becky Motal said. “Not only would it be the first major reservoir built in the basin in four decades, but it’s the first project in our history that would allow us to store significant amounts of water downstream that could be used by multiple customers. That’s vitally important to serving the needs of our downstream industrial and agricultural customers, meeting environmental flow requirements and taking pressure off the Highland Lakes.”

The reservoir wouldn’t be built on the Colorado River, but off channel. Officials said the reservoir would hold about 40,000 acre feet but would be refilled during the year by capturing excess river flows to add about 90,000 acre-feet to the region’s supply.

Burnet County Precinct 4 Commissioner Joe Don Dockery previously told The Picayune that building an off-channel reservoir in the lower portion of the basin makes sense on many levels.

First, it could capture excess floodwaters that enter the basin below the Highland Lakes, he said.

According to LCRA officials, most of the water that enters the Colorado River below the Highland Lakes flows into Matagorda Bay and the Gulf of Mexico since there is no way to store it in the lower basin.

Plus, a new reservoir being in the lower part of the basin would be closer to its users — the rice farmers — requiring less infrastructure, Dockery said.

During the Jan. 8 special LCRA meeting, when the board discussed the resolution that could lead to curtailing water releases for rice farmers in Matagorda, Wharton and Colorado counties, several people urged the water authority to move forward with developing off-channel reservoirs.

“It just makes sense,” Dockery said after the meeting.

Along with the off-channel reservoir project, the board approved spending $15 million to develop groundwater wells in Bastrop County for the Lost Pines Power Park. The project could produce another 10,000 acre-feet of water if the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District approves the plan, LCRA officials said.

Board chairman Tim Timmerman said the two projects — especially the off-channel reservoir — would be a major step in securing water for the basin’s current and future needs.

“This new reservoir would help serve the basin’s needs for generations,” he said. “I’m honored to be part of the board that is working to make it a reality.”

In other action, the board approved a $1.2 million floating water-intake system as a long-term solution to the domestic water needs of the Spicewood Beach Water System in communities where residents have relied for months on water hauled in by LCRA tanker trucks.

LCRA officials have brought in about 40,000 gallons of water per day that was purchased from a private ranch well since February 2012 after the well serving those communities malfunctioned.

The proposed new intake system would operate on a floating barge and recover about 475,000 gallons per day from Lake Travis to serve Spicewood Beach, Lakeside Beach and Spicewood Elementary School in Burnet County.

daniel@thepicayune.com