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We need to look at the big picture, warns Highland Lakes advocate

Lake Buchanan

The Highland Lakes — from Buchanan to Travis — are a source of water for recreation, industry, households, and agriculture. With so many competing interests, the Central Texas Water Coalition works to protect it from too many downstream straws. Staff photo by Daniel Clifton

Ten years after the Central Texas Water Coalition was founded, its volunteer members are still advocating to protect the Highland Lakes, even though, at times, it feels like they’re on a treadmill going nowhere.

Founder and board President Jo Karr Tedder was giving an annual update to the Burnet County Commissioners Court on June 22 when she acknowledged a comment she made in 2014 to the Lower Colorado River Authority. 

“Oh, my gosh, we’re saying the same thing we were saying then: Things have to change,” Tedder said. 

Despite change coming slowly, if at all, she and other advocates press on. Over the past decade, the Central Texas Water Coalition and its allies have made some improvements to the management and oversight of the lakes and the lower Colorado River basin. 

At the Commissioners Court meeting, Tedder outlined issues the coalition is still trying to address. One of those priorities is pushing the LCRA, which manages the Highland Lakes and lower Colorado River basin water, to quit using historic inflow averages and utilize more current data in its decisions.

She presented a chart that outlines the historic average inflows to the Highland Lakes. (Inflows refer to water flowing into the lakes via rivers and streams). What the LCRA currently uses reflects the average inflows from 1942 to 2020. But Tedder said that’s not reflective of more current inflows. In the chart, she highlighted the May inflows.

Based on the 1942 to 2020 data, the average May inflow to the Highland Lakes is 202,946 acre-feet of water. (An acre-foot is 325,851 gallons.) If you look at the average May inflows from 2008 to 2015, a period that included a drought, the average inflows for the month are 96,501 acre-feet.

In 2021, the inflows for May were only 113,992 acre-feet, which is more than the 2008-2015 average but well below the 1942-2020 average. 

“If there is anything that shows ‘Houston, we have a problem,’ it is the inflow trend,” Tedder said. 

Burnet County Judge James Oakley concurred that using the historic averages doesn’t seem to make sense at this stage. 

Tedder said the coalition is about to wrap up a two-year project in how using real-time data such as river and inflow gauges is more appropriate in managing the Highland Lakes water than using historical averages. 

The Highland Lakes are a water source for not only people living near them but also for many in Central Texas and Austin as well as industry and agriculture. A contentious issue is the release of water downstream for agriculture, predominantly rice farms along the Gulf Coast.

Rice farmers order water from the LCRA for their fields. They then divert the water from the Colorado River through a series of canals to the fields. The water is used to flood the fields to suppress weeds, which allows rice to flourish. But, Tedder pointed out, it takes about 6 feet of water over the course of a growing season to curtail weeds.

On top of that, agriculture pays less for water than most other customers. As part of the trade-off for a lower price, when lake levels at Travis and Buchanan hit a certain point, the LCRA can interrupt, or cut off, releases for agriculture purposes. 

Tedder said more work needs to be done on the agriculture side. She told commissioners that rice farmers still use dirt canals, while growers in many other countries have switched to concrete- or plastic-lined canals.

The agriculture customers, she added, can even order water, which the LCRA will release, but then not take delivery of it or pay for it if they get rain between the time the water is released released from the lakes and arrives at its diversion points. These releases, however, are counted toward environmental needs and use.

“You’re also sending water from a drought-prone area — us — to a wet area — them — traveling 600 miles, so you have huge evaporation,” Tedder said. “We’re wasteful as a nation as far as water is concerned. We’ve always had plenty, but that is rapidly changing.”

She pointed out that many Western states, particularly those relying on the other Colorado River, are in dire straights. 

The key for the Highland Lakes area, Tedder said, is to continue planning for drought, adopting management practices and plans that use more current data, and looking at the big picture. While there are a number of state and regional agencies and organizations tasked with water management, Tedder said they often can’t, or don’t, look beyond their immediate areas or agendas.

“The biggest issues we’ve had with water over the years is everybody works in a silo,” she said. “And no one is looking out for what’s best for the state of Texas, waterwise.”

For more information on Highland Lakes water issues or how to get involved, visit the Central Texas Water Coalition website.