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AUSTIN — Two administrative law judges upped the ante when it comes to how much water must be in lakes Buchanan and Travis before the Lower Colorado River Authority can release it for downstream irrigation and rice farming purposes under a proposed emergency drought relief order.

On Feb. 21, William G. Newchurch and Travis Vickery, administrative law judges for the State Office of Administrative Hearings, proposed the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality set a mark of 1.4 million acre-feet of water be in the two main Highland Lakes at 11:59 p.m. March 1 in order for the LCRA to release water for those downstream agricultural uses.

The TCEQ commission must sign off on the proposal during a regular meeting Feb. 26 in Austin.

“We’re absolutely ecstatic,” said Jo Karr Tedder, president of the Central Texas Water Coalition. “We’ve learned to be prepared for the worse, so it was wonderful they actually did what they were supposed to do, and that was they took all the scientific data and all the testimony and determined what was fact and what was not. And they came out strongly in support of raising the trigger point to 1.4 million acre-feet.

Earlier in February, the LCRA asked the TCEQ to approve an emergency drought relief order that would allow the water authority to curtail those downstream water releases but asked the trigger point be 1.1 million acre-feet.

During a TCEQ commission meeting Feb. 12 when members were supposed to vote whether to approve the emergency drought request, some downstream irrigation customers challenged the request, forcing it to go before the administrative judges.

The judges heard arguments Feb. 21.

Highland Lakes officials asked the LCRA to raise the trigger point to 1.4 million acre-feet to protect lakes Buchanan and Travis during the continuing drought and help them recover.

The TCEQ commissioners will now have the administrative law judges’ decision to also consider when they discuss the emergency order request again Feb. 26.

“All the firm customers, the city of Austin, the Highland Lakes co-op group, all of our group know the 1.4 (million acre-feet mark) is what the scientific data said we had to have in order to protect our drinking water,” Karr Tedder said. “(The judges’ recommendation) means that, unless we get enough water to reach 1.4 million acre-feet, water will not be going downstream again this year to the rice farmers.”

Currently, the two water-storage reservoirs hold about 762,000 acre-feet of water.

If the TCEQ approves the emergency drought relief request, it would mark the third year in a row the LCRA will not release water downstream for irrigation customers and rice farmers.

“Whatever (TCEQ commissioners) decide on (Feb. 26) kicks in immediately,” Karr Tedder said. “What we proved (at the hearing) was there was an imminent threat to health and safety with the way this drought has developed and extended.”