Vice President of Water John Hofmann of the Lower Colorado River Authority began a water management plan presentation in the Red Bud Center at LCRA headquarters in Austin on Thursday, Oct. 13. The hour-long presentation was followed by an hour of questions from the audience, which was made up of representatives of the entities that help put together the 2020 plan. Staff photo by Suzanne Freeman
The Lower Colorado River Authority held a promised update on the water management plan for the Highland Lakes, inviting everyone who had a hand in developing the original document to the Thursday, Oct. 13, meeting in Austin.
“I think LCRA hears us and what we are saying and the questions we are asking,” coalition President Jo Karr Tedder told DailyTrib.com after the meeting. “I think this meeting would not have happened had we not been pushing so hard to have them open the water management plan. This is what needs to be done. They need to be more transparent and open about the information and the data.”
The push to update the plan with new data driven by current drought conditions and climate changes began at commissioners court meetings in Travis and Burnet counties over the summer. Both governments adopted resolutions supporting the move. The coalition also asked to be on the LCRA Board of Directors agenda for August but were “met with silence,” Tedder said at the time. This spurred a letter to Gov. Abbott, which was sent Sept. 26.
LCRA Vice President of Water John Hofmann led that promised meeting on Thursday.
“This is not a beginning of the process to update the management plan,” Hofmann made clear as slides appeared on large screens across the front of the room and the meeting began. “This plan was approved in 2020 and includes new drought of record updates from 2008-15.”
He also explained that the LCRA has three evaluation meetings each year to determine if and how much water can be released to downstream users based on combined storage in the LCRA’s two reservoir lakes, Buchanan and Travis. When that reaches a certain level, as it did in the summer, releases for agricultural use can be stopped. Evaluation dates are Nov. 1, March 1, and July 1.
The March 1 evaluation for 2022 rated lake conditions as “normal” with storage above 1.5 million acre-feet, said presenter Monica Master, vice president of Water Resources for the LCRA. Data passed the “look ahead” test, she said, and 178,000 acre-feet of water was released for Gulf Coast rice farmers’ first growing season.
Things changed drastically by the July 1 evaluation. Combined storage for Buchanan and Travis was down to 1,278 million acre-feet (1.3 million is the trigger point in the water management plan), changing the water supply condition rating to “extraordinary drought.” No water was sent to rice farmers for the second growing season.
The Central Texas Water Coalition’s white paper called the water management plan that approved water sales for the first rice growing season and weed control “antiquated.” It pointed out that the drought of record was disastrous for area businesses, homeowners, municipalities, and families.
“The current drought may prove just as bad or worse — yet under the current water management plan, LCRA may wait until 2025 to even begin the update,” the document reads. “We do not have water to waste and we certainly cannot ignore this threat and do nothing for another three years — not when our drinking water is at stake.”
The water management plan looks at historic data to predict the future, but climate changes, decreasing inflows into the water basin, and rapid development in the Highland Lakes are happening too quickly to make that data currently viable, reads the white paper.
“The stronger conservation provisions of the current water management plan are kicking in too late,” the document continues. “The previous drought of record lasted eight years. If the current drought lasts the same length of time, we’ll have been mismanaging our water resources during the entirety of the drought. This didn’t go well last time around and this time things are looking worse.”
The meeting also included weather predictions for the next year from LCRA Chief Meteorologist Bob Rose, who said the current La Niña pattern now going into its third year could ease up in the spring of 2023.
“It’s been a rough year weather-wise,” Rose said. “As we got into the summer, we saw indications that it would be something like 2011 (worst single-year drought in Texas history) again. The heat dome built up early and lasted longer in 2022. It was more spread out over the state but not quite as strong, not quite to the extreme of 2011.”
Rainfall in late August and early September certainly helped, but September precipitation was still 1-2 inches below normal.
“This is typically our wettest period of the year,” Rose said.
He predicts the weather will continue to be dryer than normal through February.
“The latest forecast indicates the rainfall trend will be above normal for the March, April, May period, and maybe June and July also, which is when the rain typically turns off,” he said. “It looks like we’ll have a wetter pattern this spring.”
“That’s kind of a mixed bag,” said Hofmann before explaining the key takeaways from the meeting.
“Our 2020 water management plan is responding to the drought,” he said. “Our plan is protective and responsive to the lake storage, inflows, actual operations, possible future conditions and firm customer demands. Water use is currently below provisions that would trigger updating the plan before 2025.”
The coalition disagrees.
“A sufficiently protective water management plan would be able to withstand a more prolonged drought under both near-term and longer-term demand conditions,” the coalition wrote in its introduction to the white paper titled “Action needs to begin now.” “To truly prevent, rather than just delay water catastrophes like we are starting to see around the world, a larger conversation is urgently needed about how our water supply should be used, managed, and protected for the future. Our very lives depend on it.”
Thursday’s meeting held some of that conversation, Tedder said.
“I think the main thing is it’s going to take legislation for someone to make the hard decisions that have to be made to protect the water for Central Texas,” she told DailyTrib.com. “It is a whole basin issue. The reality is we have 2 million people who need drinking water, and that is our focus.”