The 2020 update further protects “firm” water customers but includes a new limit on how much water can be sent downstream from the Highland Lakes for “interruptible” users.
Cities, municipalities, and industries are typically firm water customers and can rely on water being available even during the worst droughts. Interruptible customers are those whose water can be cut back or cut off during a drought, such as downstream agricultural customers in Colorado, Wharton, and Matagorda counties.
The LCRA released its first state-approved water plan a little over 30 years ago and continues to update it. The 2020 plan keeps much of the framework of the one from 2015. The 2015 plan set up three categories of drought conditions — normal, less severe, and extraordinary — that the LCRA uses to determine how much water from Buchanan and Travis is available for downstream agricultural operations.
“This plan has greater protections for firm customers such as cities and industries while, at the same time, providing interruptible water for downstream agricultural operations,” LCRA General Manager Phil Wilson said. “The plan also continues to provide water to help protect the health of the river and Matagorda Bay.”
The LCRA held meetings with stakeholders and interested groups across the Lower Colorado River basin before submitting the revised plan to TCEQ in 2019.
The 2020 plan reduces the maximum amount of interruptible stored water available for most downstream agricultural use to 178,000 acre-feet for the first growing season and an additional 66,000 acre-feet for the second growing season. The prior plan limited available water to 202,000 acre-feet for the first crop and 76,500 acre-feet for the second.
An acre-foot of water is approximately 326,000 gallons.
The plan updates previous limits for interruptible customers but includes a new limit on the amount of water that can be released from the lakes for those users. This accounts for water that might be lost in transit when it leaves the Highland Lakes for the three downstream counties as well as water that agricultural customers have ordered but is not needed by the time it arrives several days later.
The revised plan also:
maintains storage in lakes Travis and Buchanan above 600,000 acre-feet through a repeat of the worst drought the region has previously seen;
includes the latest available hydrology;
uses projected water demands through 2025;
and continues to require releases from the lakes to meet specific flow conditions in the river downstream of Austin and for the health of Matagorda Bay.
The first state-approved LCRA Water Management Plan was released in 1989 followed by updates in 1991, 1992, 1999, 2010, 2015, and 2020.