LCRA chips away at rate-hike proposal after public outcry

CONNIE SWINNEY • PICAYUNE STAFF

MARBLE FALLS — Lower Colorado River Authority officials have tempered a proposed water-rate hike by narrowing the increase contributed by upstream customers and shifting more of the burden of the hike to agricultural interests downstream, according to calculations from the revised plan.

At a public meeting at Lakeside Pavilion on March 31, officials unveiled a revised rate-hike proposal on the heels of public outcry in January, when proposed rates were bumped as high as 66 percent from the current rates through 2019 for municipalities in the Highland Lakes, officials said.

The revised plan would hike rates about 34 percent through 2019.

“LCRA needs to cover the cost of providing water to more than a million people,” said Karen Bondy, senior vice president of the authority’s water resources. “Based on that input, we’ve made adjustments on how we base the rates.”

About 200 people attended an LCRA meeting on the public water rate March 31 at Lakeside Park in Marble Falls, where officials unveiled a revised rate-hike plan through 2019. Staff photo by Connie Swinney
About 200 people attended an LCRA meeting on the public water rate March 31 at Lakeside Park in Marble Falls, where officials unveiled a revised rate-hike plan through 2019. Staff photo by Connie Swinney

Those subject to the hike are “interruptible” customers such as rice farmers and other downstream agricultural interests that currently pay $6.50 per acre-foot for water and “firm” water customers such as municipalities along the Highland Lakes that currently pay about $151 per acre-foot of water.

An acre-foot is the amount of water it would take to fill a football field-size area with one foot of water.

“If rates go up that come to the city, we will have to modify our rates or eat it, which would mean the quality of service would go down,” said Marble Falls Mayor George Russell, who attended the meeting with dozens of officials and residents from Burnet and Llano counties. “I hope they hold onto the big picture.”

LCRA’s re-calculation shifts the overall burden of the hike from firm to interruptible customers.

The revised proposed rate hike for firm-water customers would increase the charge from $151 per acre-foot (current) to $175.46 per acre-foot (in 2015), followed by an approximate 3 percent annual increase from 2016-19. The hike would reach about $197.48 by 2019.

The previous proposed hike for firm customers topped $251 per acre-foot by 2019.

Among interruptible customers such as rice farmers, the revised proposal resulted in a substantial rate hike.

The revised plan shifts the hike burden to interruptible customers.

Before the revision, firm-water customers carried 88 percent of the burden, while interruptible customers would absorb 12 percent.

The new proposal means interruptible customers shoulder 55 percent of the increases, while firm-water customers must take on 45 percent of the increases.

LCRA officials said a search for new water sources because of drought conditions as well as “river management costs,” including upcoming water projects and dam safety and maintenance, hastened the need for a proposed hike.

LCRA expects to add 15 percent to the water supply with groundwater projects in Lost Pines Park and the Griffith League Scout Ranch as well as a proposed off-channel reservoir in the lower basin.

To adjust the proposed hike, officials removed a multimillion-dollar reservoir project in the lower basin from their calculations.

“We are looking for alternative funding sources to pay for the resource,” Bondy said.

LCRA officials also proposed rates for customers based on use rather than resources committed to customers.

“Agriculture is important, but people are important, and when you look at what the agricultural folks have invested and you look at firm-water customers such as Marble Falls, City of Austin, etcetera, we’re paying a great deal of money,” Russell said. “We’re looking for fairness, reasonableness and an ample supply as we go forward.”

State Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay) criticized LCRA’s proposal.

“They’re already at the highest rate of any of the major water basins,” he said in a phone interview.

A representative from Fraser’s office attended the meeting.

“I’ve been saying for years, they need to decrease the size of their bureaucracy in order to get their costs under control,” he added. “They need to establish the Water Management Plan, get that in place, determine how much water is in the upper basin, what the trigger points are, and, then, if they want to start looking at doing something downstream, either groundwater or the basin, I want to know who’s going to pay for it.”

The proposal is expected to be presented to the LCRA board for a possible vote in June.

The next public water rate meeting is 6 p.m. April 3 at Bee Cave City Hall, 4000 Galleria Parkway in Bee Cave.

Go to www.lcra.org for more information.

connie@thepicayune.com