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Burnet County official asks LCRA for emergency order to stop water releases

Burnet County Precinct 4 Commissioner Joe Don Dockery

Burnet County Precinct 4 Commissioner Joe Don Dockery on Sept. 20 asked the Lower Colorado River Authority's Water Operations Committee board members (who are the same as the LCRA Board of Directors) to issue an emergency order to stop all water releases not intended for firm water users. Staff photo by Suzanne Freeman

Burnet County Commissioner Joe Don Dockery asked the Lower Colorado River Authority for an emergency order to curtail releases from lakes Buchanan and Travis that are not required for firm water users. He was one of 16 people who spoke during public comment at the LCRA’s Water Operations Committee meeting in Austin on Sept. 20. 

Of those 16, all but one urged committee members, who also make up the LCRA Board of Directors, to redefine the triggers for setting drought restrictions in the authority’s Water Management Plan. The plan has been in place since 2020 and isn’t up for review until 2025. Speakers also asked directors to include a discussion of drought conditions on every LCRA board agenda for the foreseeable future. 

Dockery focused his remarks on the need for an emergency order. A native of Marble Falls, he has served as Precinct 4 commissioner for 16 years. The precinct includes 18 miles of Lake Travis.

“I appeared before this body in August of 2011 (the one-year drought of record) and was the first person to advocate for an emergency order,” he said during the Wednesday meeting. “And now, 12 years later, I make the same request.”

He also noted that he came on his own accord and not as a county commissioner, although the Burnet County Commissioners Court approved a resolution in 2022 asking the LCRA to reopen its Water Management Plan. 

“I realize this (emergency order) would curtail releases for environmental flows, but with the last of inflows into the lakes, LCRA is artificially creating downstream environmental flow through releases from the lakes,” Dockery continued. “In other words, if the dams didn’t exist, there would be no natural flows.” 

Chapter 4 of the LCRA’s Water Management Plan sets five inflow categories for freshwater into Matagorda Bay, Currently, it is at “threshold,” the lowest of the five, which requires a minimum monthly flow to the bay to preserve marine life. 

Water releases, including to rice farmers in the bay area, are triggered by the combined storage of the Highland Lakes chain’s two reservoirs: Buchanan and Travis. Water was cut off to three of the four rice districts as of 2022’s second growing season. 

“As of September first, the combined storage of the Highland Lakes is over 53,000 acre-feet less than it was at this same time of year in 2012,” Dockery said. “The demands from the additional populations utilizing water from the lakes coupled with the record low inflows demand modifications to the Water Management Plan.” 

Dockery was joined at the meeting by Burnet County Commissioner Jim Luther, Llano County Commissioner Linda Raschke, Travis County commissioners Brigid Shea and Ann Howard, and Williamson County Commissioner Terry Cook. Only Luther did not speak during public comment. 

Cook brought a prop. She held up a 2-pound bag of white rice, pointing out that it took 1,000 gallons of water to grow those kernels.

“LCRA released 33 billion gallons to go to the rice farmers this last year,” she said. “Is that the business we should be subsidizing with below-market water rates when humans and nature are so needy right now?” 

Although the LCRA cut off water to three of the four rice districts on the Gulf Coast, it still sold water to a fourth. Garwood Irrigation District was exempted from the curtailment due to a deal made when it sold its water rights to the LCRA in the late 1980s.

In her remarks, Raschke cited her credentials as a four-term county commissioner. 

“I’ve watched all water woes, droughts, floods, all of it, but I’ve never witnessed such a long heated summer as we’ve had this year,” she said. “You all know where we’re at, and we are all here to work together. I echo what my fellow commissioners have said. We are in unprecedented times. I feel it is our job to do everything in our power to make sure that future generations have the water they deserve.” 

Several staff and board members of the Central Texas Water Coalition also spoke, citing statistics on weather patterns, climate change, and the ineffectiveness of the Water Management Plan under this year’s drought conditions. 

“Our Water Management Plan does not protect us currently,” said coalition Executive Director Shannon Hamilton. “It allows our water to be sold down to zero. Today, we are requesting the board move to Stage 3 (drought restrictions) now, not when people are out of water. Please protect the 2.5 million Texans we have living here (in Central Texas).”

Only one person spoke on behalf of the plan’s effectiveness. Kirby Brown of Ducks Unlimited, a nonprofit established in the lower Colorado River basin to conserve wetlands, praised the board’s refusal to reopen the plan. 

“This drought has been tough,” he said. “It’s been tough for us in the (lower Colorado River) basin, but we are making it. It just proves the Water Management Plan is working, just as the science said it would.” 

He pointed out that cutting off three of the four rice districts from water affected jobs, schools, and people’s lives. 

“We support this board and the LCRA staff who implement this plan,” he said. 

Because neither the drought nor the Water Management Plan were on the agenda, LCRA board members could not legally address any of the concerns raised. LCRA General Manager Phil Wilson could, however, and he made a statement that gave a shout-out to Ducks Unlimited for its support and thanked the board for its leadership.

“On behalf of the staff, we appreciate the leadership the board has shown,” he said. “The Water Management Plan, as Kirby (Brown) said, is doing what it’s supposed to do with the science.” 

He acknowledged that the drought and extreme heat have caused a significant and challenging problem in the Highland Lakes chain.

The biggest single water user, he said, is evaporation from the lakes followed by cities. He also noted that 70 percent of the water that goes to urban areas is used on landscaping. 

“I appreciate the comments when we talk about ‘we’re all in this together,’” he continued. “As we’re growing and developing, it’s essential we all do our part to conserve, to apply necessary conservation measures. We can’t control evaporation and heat, but we can control non-essential water use. That’s exactly what we need to do until this drought is broken and our water supply recovered.”

With no other speakers, the LCRA Water Operations Committee continued with its agenda. The committee meeting was followed by meetings of the Planning and Public Policy Committee, Transmission Services Corporation Board of Directors, and Board of Directors, whose members also serve on the aforementioned committees and board.