TCEQ approves emergency drought order for Highland Lakes with no trigger point

DANIEL CLIFTON • PICAYUNE EDITOR

AUSTIN — Texas Commission on Environmental Quality commissioners left Highland Lakes officials scratching their heads Feb. 26 after approving an emergency drought relief order but striking the trigger point portion of the request.

“I was just stunned that they went without a trigger point,” said Jo Karr Tedder of the Central Texas Water Coalition. “They went against every recommendation but the rice farmers.”

The TCEQ commissioners did approve the emergency order, which essentially allows the Lower Colorado River Authority to curtail most downstream releases of water for rice farming and other agricultural purposes as of 11:59 p.m. March 1. The LCRA has requested a trigger point of a combined 1.1 million acre-feet of water to be in lakes Buchanan and Travis at that time in order for those downstream releases to commence.

The two lakes currently hold about 761,000 acre-feet of water. In the two previous emergency drought orders, the TCEQ had approved a trigger point of 850,000 acre-feet. But LCRA officials wanted a higher point to further protect the lakes.

Highland Lakes officials, however, wanted a trigger point of 1.4 million acre-feet. On Feb. 12, the TCEQ commission punted the issue to the State Office of Administrative Hearing after some lower basin interests challenged the 1.1 million acre-feet trigger point. On Feb. 21, two administrative judges recommended the 1.4 million acre-feet, which gave Highland Lakes officials something to smile about.

After the TCEQ decision Feb. 26, Highland Lakes officials were left pondering what it means. Along with modifying the trigger point amount, the commissioners dropped the LCRA’s request for an automatic 60-day extension after the initial 120-day emergency order period.

“With no trigger points, we just don’t know what this means,” Karr Tedder said. “I don’t know what the ramifications are. We do know it basically means no water will be released downstream (for irrigation purposes) for 120 days, but then I guess we’ll be right back here.”

Burnet County Judge Donna Klaeger was left trying to figure out the order as well. While it’s almost a guarantee not enough water will flow into lakes Buchanan and Travis by the March 1 deadline to allow for most downstream releases, officials don’t know what will happen over the next 120 days.

“I know that it won’t hit even the 850,000 (acre-feet trigger point) by March 1, but it could by June,” Klaeger said. “But with no trigger point, what happens? That’s what we’re left trying to figure out right now.”

In a joint statement, state Sens. Troy Fraser and Kirk Watson said the TCEQ’s decision highlighted how difficult it was to manage the region’s water supply during the current crisis.

“By failing to establish a combined storage trigger, TCEQ essentially avoided addressing the hard questions,” the senators stated. “Because lake conditions and forecasts are so bleak, the TCEQ was able to punt on the decision of a combined storage trigger. Instead, the commissioners issued a ruling preventing the release of water to interruptible customers under the current conditions. This is the bare minimum needed to get throughout the next 120 days. Emergency orders affecting only 120 days are critical in a time of crisis, but they serve little value in ensuring the proper management of a limited resource over the long term.”

LCRA officials stated the water authority wouldn’t be releasing a statement or press release on the TCEQ decision but directed requests to the TCEQ press release, which covered the topic in one sentence: “Commissioners also voted to modify the executive director’s emergency order suspending the release of interruptible water supplies on the Lower Colorado River, for a duration of 120 days from the original order, approved on January 27.”

Karr Tedder remained almost stymied over the decision.

“(The commissioners) obviously don’t see the crisis for the Central Texas area. Maybe they don’t realized how drastic the situation is, but how couldn’t they,” she said. “We followed the process. I’ve always thought if you followed the process things would work out like they’re supposed to, but then you get whacked up side the head like this. I don’t know what this means.”

But Highland Lakes officials do know one thing. In 120 days, they’ll be back fighting this same fight again in front of TCEQ.

“It definitely sets the precedent for a battle again,” said Burnet County Precinct 4 Commissioner Joe Don Dockery. Essentially, we’ll be fighting it again in 90 days because we can’t wait until the 120 days to get started.”

daniel@thepicayune.com