Colorado River advocacy groups squaring off in water fight

CONNIE SWINNEY • PICAYUNE STAFF

AUSTIN — As drought conditions continue, the battle over water from the Colorado River heats up between advocacy groups fighting to get their messages across to state agencies with the power to halt supplies.

The Lower Colorado River Basin Coalition, a newly formed group, has assembled advocates from agriculture, environmental, hunting and wildlife interests from Bastrop County to the Matagorda Bay.

“We wanted to make sure the messaging being heard by the public, being heard by our agencies, is a balanced messaging, so that they do hear from everyone who is impacted below Longhorn Dam, Lady Bird Lake in Austin,” coalition chairman Kirby Brown said.

Brown also works as a conservation biologist for Ducks Unlimited, a national organization that focuses on sportsman activities and waterfowl and wetlands conservation.

Other entities that comprise the coalition are the Coastal Conservation Association, the Rice Belt Warehouse, the Red Bluff Hunting Club, Bastrop County, the Sierra Club, Audubon Texas and the Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative.

“It’s been one of those things where we felt like we needed to tell the other story. Our entire economies, our businesses are being impacted — not just rice farmers,” Brown said.

The organization formed in June shortly after the Central Texas Water Coalition scored a victory regarding reservoir storage requirements and water-release triggers recommended by the Lower Colorado River Authority and approved by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

The two entities agreed on setting a 1.1 million acre-feet of combined storage requirement for lakes Buchanan and Travis — the previous trigger point was 850,000 acre-feet — citing historic low levels, minimal inflows from rain runoff and persistent drought conditions.

While the reservoirs are currently about 38 percent full, for three years in a row, TCEQ has approved cutting off water releases for the rice farming industry downstream to try to maintain water levels upstream that supply water for domestic use for about a million people in the Highland Lakes from Lake Buchanan to the city of Austin.

The lower basin group criticizes what they believe to be an unyielding and one-sided threat to downstream interests that range from agrarian to environmental.

“That environmental catastrophe that is taking place right now in this drought, it’s one of those things you hate to see,” Brown said. “You hate to see anyone killing a river, killing a bay, then proposing, as TCEQ has proposed, to make sure that firm users upstream of the dam, which includes the city of Austin and other communities, are able to continue watering lawns once a week for 12 to 15 hours a day, while the rice industry is completely cut off, impacting water fowl and the entire river.”

Kevin Kline is vice president for communication for the Central Texas Water Coalition, comprised of dozens of municipalities, businesses, property owners associations, chambers of commerce and counties in the Highland Lakes and Austin area.

He believes the debate has moved past industry needs and into basic needs for upstream residents.

“If you go out to the lakes, you see that none of the public boat ramps are open. Business are closed. Many are struggling. People can’t sell their homes because the value has dropped so much. Even if they wanted to, there are not many buyers,” Kline said. “At this point, it’s really a question of having water for public use, for the cities. Wells are going dry. Some of the utilities are running out of water.”

At the height of the drought in January 2012, Spicewood Beach Water Supply System malfunctioned because of the lower water levels along the Colorado River, hastening LCRA to truck in water up until June of this year while officials secured a new water source. The system, located on Lake Travis about 20 miles east of Marble Falls, has about 500 water connections that serve roughly 1,100 people and an elementary school.

Despite the belief that water releases downstream exacerbated the situation, the Lower Colorado River Basin Coalition believes, to some extent, residents upstream hold some responsibility for maintaining water levels.

“We do not want to hurt anyone’s drinking water. … What we’ve argued is there’s a lot more water conservation that can take place, and that conservation is the key to keeping water in those lakes for many years,” Brown said. “If you stand at Longhorn Dam (south of Austin) and look west, you see a lake that’s full. That’s probably mostly recreational, and then you see the lawns all the way through Austin that are really green.”

During the past several years, rice farm production has dwindled by 20-30 percent. Fisheries have reported lower yields, and environmentalists are documenting higher salination levels, which are a threat to wildlife habitat and waterfowl.

“I look at the suffering on the lakes themselves, and then I look at the suffering downstream, and I see a problem,” Brown said.

Kline agreed, adding he believes downstream interests must adapt with the severity of the drought.

“We would certainly argue that we need more conservation, and that, as we go along, people will have to learn how to use water more effectively,” he said. “It’s also important to keep in mind that Central Texans have made huge strides in conservation. For example, Austin per-capita water use is down 30 percent over the past few years. We’re at the point we need to be keeping water in the lakes, so we have water if this drought continues. For a million people, their source of water is the Colorado River. If we run out of water, it will be a big problem.”

Both sides expect to offer research, goals and potential solutions to the water issue.

“We have evidence now that the droughts can be longer and more severe than anyone ever thought,” Kline said. “It’s good to have as much communication and clarity behind what everyone’s thinking, to have some clarity, to work through it all.”

For more on the Central Texas Water Coalition, go to www.centraltexaswatercoalition.com. For more on the Lower Colorado River Basin Coalition, go to www.waterdownstream.com.

connie@thepicayune.com

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