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LCRA seeks public comments on rates for agriculture water customers

South Texas rice plants

The Lower Colorado River Authority is recommending increases in rates for interruptible water for agriculture customers, mainly rice farmers, near the Texas coast. iStock image

The deadline is Friday, Jan. 7, for public comments on possible changes to the amount and cost of interruptible water that the Lower Colorado River Authority sells to agricultural customers in three downstream counties. 

The authority’s board of directors could consider a recommendation for new pricing during its Jan. 19 meeting. The agenda for that meeting was not posted as of press time Wednesday, Jan. 5. Check the LCRA’s board meeting webpage for the agenda, which is published at least 72 hours prior to the meeting.

To submit comments or review the proposed drafts to the drought contingency plan for interruptible agricultural customers and interruptible water rates, visit the LCRA Agricultural Irrigation Use webpage. 

One group protesting the changes is the Central Texas Water Coalition. Although the LCRA is planning to raise water rates for downstream rice farmers, the coalition said that is not enough. 

“Based on numbers from the LCRA, the price of $66.14 per acre-foot of water (there are 325,851 gallons in one acre-foot) paid by the downstream irrigators in 2021 doesn’t even cover the $69.65 per acre-foot it costs to deliver the water to them, meaning they didn’t pay anything for the actual water,” said coalition President Jo Karr Tedder in a statement released in late December. “Downstream irrigators pay nothing for the significant evaporation and leakage that occurs as water makes its way down the Colorado River in open, unlined dirt canals to the rice fields. If a rice farmer decides the water ordered and sent is not needed, it is simply canceled and flows into the Gulf of Mexico at no cost to the irrigator that ordered it. This routine practice makes no sense. But it gets worse.”

Tedder goes on to explain how a “rate shock” fund approved by the LCRA in 2019 guarantees rice farmers won’t face more than a 5 percent rate increase per year for the water they use for weed control. 

“However, increasing the rate paid by area businesses and municipalities by seven percent somehow seemed necessary, and the LCRA did that last October,” Tedder said. “It’s time to rebalance water priorities and update water policies that govern our region’s primary source of drinking water before it’s too late.” 

Under the proposed changes, the LCRA would decrease the maximum allocations of interruptible water in the Gulf Coast and Lakeside divisions and update the contract and rates for interruptible water customers in the Garwood, Gulf Coast, and Lakeside divisions. 

Currently, Garwood Agricultural Division customers pay $38.32 or $45.42 per acre-foot of water. Those rates would go up to $39.19 and $46.46 under the proposed rate change, increases of 87 cents and $1.40 per acre-foot of water. 

Customers in the Gulf Coast and Lakeside divisions currently pay $66.14 per acre-foot, which would increase to $69.44 under this plan, or $3.34 per acre-foot. 

These proposed changes only apply to agricultural customers in Matagorda, Wharton, and Colorado counties who purchase interruptible, stored water. Interruptible water is subject to being cut off or curtailed as described in customer contracts. Interruptible water can be cut off during droughts so firm water supplies will continue to be available to cities, businesses, and industries.

Firm water supplies are available even during the driest times the region experiences. 

“Under the plan, interruptible supply is reevaluated multiple times throughout the year,” LCRA officials said. “For example, the supply can be interrupted prior to the first-season crop, in the middle of the first season, prior to the second season or in the middle of the second season.”

Farmers in the agricultural division have reduced their interruptible water usage since the extended drought from 2011 to 2018. According to the LCRA, Gulf Coast agricultural division customers used 1.9 to 3.1 acre-feet per acre from 2018 through 2021 compared to 3.3 to 4.4 acre-feet per acre from 2008 through 2011.

Visit the LCRA’s Water Use Summary webpage for more information on how the lower Colorado River basin water is utilized. 

daniel@thepicayune.com