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The Lower Colorado River Authority Board of Directors gave a thumbs-up to higher water rates for interruptible customers during its Jan. 19 meeting, a day after Water Operations Committee members voiced concerns about circulating information they said was inaccurate, specifically that the increase was not enough and that interruptible customers do not pay their fair share of the cost of serving them. 

The board bumped rates for Garwood Agricultural Division customers from $38.32 to $39.19 per acre-foot of water for one lift delivery and $45.42 to $46.46 per acre-foot for two lift deliveries. A lift refers to pumping the water from a lower elevation to a higher one.

Also, prices for customers in the Gulf Coast and Lakeside division increased to $69.44 per acre-foot from $66.14, an increase of $3.34 per acre-foot. 

There are 325,851 gallons in one acre-foot.

These changes 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. By definition, firm water continues to be available to cities, businesses, and industries even during some of the driest times.

Interruptible customers have not pushed back on the new rates, LCRA staff told committee members during the Water Operations Committee meeting Jan. 18. However, the majority of the more than 150 public comments received argue that the rate increase isn’t enough, that interruptible customers don’t pay their fair share, and that agriculture interests need to do more for conservation. At least one commenter stated that the LCRA needs to emphasize the water management strategy for recreational use of the Highland Lakes over farmer interests.

Firm water customers pay for 78.7 percent of river management costs, while interruptible customers (Gulf Coast and Lakeside agricultural divisions) pay 21.3 percent of river management costs, LCRA Vice President of Water Kelly Payne told the committee.

Also, interruptible customers pay 100 percent of any debt incurred for irrigation and 100 percent for canals used for irrigation delivery, he said. LCRA Executive Vice President John Hofman added that interruptible customers pay their share of costs associated with serving them. 

LCRA directors said they felt that message was lost, especially among upper Highland Lakes residents who might have little or no connection with farmers in the lower part of the basin.

Board and water committee member Tom Kelly of Colorado County said misinformation was going around about how farmers waste water. Many spend a great deal of their own resources for water conservation.

He was most likely referring to a press release sent out by the Central Texas Water Coalition in December, which included facts and figures for why the increase is not enough. 

“Based on numbers from the LCRA, the price of $66.14 per acre-foot of water 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 the release. “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.”

Kelly, who is a fifth-generation rice farmer and cattle rancher and owns 3TK Cattle and Rice Company, disagrees that farmers do not pay enough and said he and other farmers are conservationists.

“I wish some of the upper basin would come down and spend a day with me,” Kelly said. “Since 2007, when I started doing dirt work (for conservation efforts), I’ve spent probably $300,000 out of my own pocket for conservation.”

Water Operations Committee Vice Chair and board member Steve Cooper concurred, adding that farmers are among the most concerned about water conservation. He wanted people to understand that rice grown in Texas helps feed the world, and those growing the grain work to produce the product in the most efficient manner possible. Part of that includes reducing water use, which is a big part of a farmer’s cost.

People who think farmers aren’t paying their fair share for water don’t understand the risk rice producers are taking when it comes to interruptible water, he continued.

“I wish people would stop and think, and really think through what interruptible and firm really means and the value implied,” he said.

No water curtailment is expected during the first growing season based on the current amount of water stored in lakes Travis and Buchanan (the two water storage lakes), Payne told the committee. If the current dry period continues, however, chances increase for a curtailment during the second season. That decision must be made by July 1. 

Hofmann added later in the committee meeting that the LCRA’s water management plan protects firm water.

“The provision of water, interruptible water, that we have in 2022 does not jeopardize the firm supplies,” he said. “The very nature of the water management plan and very existence of the water management plan is geared toward that fact. (The) water management plan’s sole purpose is to make sure the provision of interruptible water does not imperil the supply we have.”