Sen­a­tors: Give ‘firm’ con­tracts pri­or­ity


Austin American-Statesman - - THE SECOND FRONT - A Con­tact Marty Toohey at 445-3673. Con­tact Asher Price at 445-3643.

the lat­est yank in a lon­grun­ning tug-of-war over the Colorado River, which runs through Austin and to the Gulf Coast. Lakes Travis and Buchanan, which are the two stor­age reser­voirs on the Colorado, sup­ply water for much of Cen­tral Texas, in­clud­ing vir­tu­ally all of Austin’s water, but they also pro­vide a life­line for South Texas agri­cul­ture.

“Water avail­abil­ity should be based on sound hy­drol­ogy and not on po­lit­i­cal pres­sure,” said rice farmer Ron­ald Gert­son, who leads the Colorado Water Is­sues Com­mit­tee, which works on be­half of rice pro­duc­ers.

“If folks in cities were forced to stop wa­ter­ing their lawns so the city could meet what­ever manda­tory re­stric­tions fall on them, that’s not a hor­ri­ble sit­u­a­tion if it al­lowed food to be pro­duced as a re­sult,” he con­tin­ued.

Cut­ting off water for a sec­ond year in a row will dev­as­tate an al­ready reel­ing rice-grow­ing econ­omy, he said.

The lakes are man­aged by the LCRA, a state-cre­ated or­ga­ni­za­tion that has a long­stand­ing ar­range­ment to sell water to a few hun­dred rice farm­ers near the coast. The farm­ers typ­i­cally use hun­dreds of thou­sands acre-feet of river water, de­pend­ing on an­nual rain­fall, to flood their fields and float the rice for col­lec­tion. That ar­range­ment has drawn in­creas­ing scru­tiny as Cen­tral Texas’ pop­u­la­tion and in­dus­try have boomed while the lakes have shrunk dur­ing the pro­longed drought.

In 2011, Austin of­fi­cials were qui­etly fu­ri­ous when the river author­ity re­leased water for two har­vests de­spite the dry years in 2008, 2009 and what turned out to be one of the dri­est years on record in 2011. That year, in keep­ing with its water man­age­ment plan, LCRA re­leased 433,251 acre-feet. An acre-foot is roughly equal to the amount of water three av­er­age Austin homes use in a year.

This year the river author­ity cut off water to most rice farm­ers be­cause the lakes dipped be­low 42 per­cent full in March, a move man­dated by an emer­gency re­quest it made a year ago.

The lakes are now 42 per­cent full. Un­der the LCRA’s cur­rent water man­age­ment plan, if lakes don’t dip much be­low cur­rent lev­els, up to about 22 per­cent of what is now in them would be made avail­able for down­stream farm­ers, with an ad­di­tional 4 per­cent more re­leased to ac­count for evap­o­ra­tion and other such losses in the sys­tem.

The river author­ity has pro­posed a new cut­off point that is less strict than the one used this year. Un­der the pro­posal that the LCRA wants the Texas Com­mis­sion on En­vi­ron­men­tal Qual­ity to ap­prove, the rice farm­ers would re­ceive about 15 per­cent of what is now in the lakes — up to 121,500 acre-feet — un­less the lakes are be­low 35 per­cent full on both Jan. 1 and March 1.

The lakes will prob­a­bly not drop low enough to trig­ger that new cut­off.

The river author­ity will take up the pro­posal at a spe­cial Jan. 8 meet­ing. The board’s op­tions in­clude mak­ing its emer­gency drought rules more strin­gent, pos­si­bly cut­ting off the rice farm­ers in 2013.

The Texas Com­mis­sion on En­vi­ron­men­tal Qual­ity will con­sider what­ever re­quest the river author­ity brings for­ward as early as its Jan. 16 board meet­ing.

If next year’s Cen­tral Texas rain­fall is about the same as this year’s and the rice farm­ers are cut off, the lakes will be about one-third full in early 2014, ac­cord­ing to city cal­cu­la­tions. If the rice farm­ers get their water, the lakes will dip be­low a quar­ter full in early 2014.

At a quar­ter full, the re­gion of­fi­cially en­ters the worst drought on record, trig­ger­ing manda­tory cuts by the LCRA and in turn trig­ger­ing the most re­stric­tive water rules Austin has seen. Those in­clude ban­ning wash­ing cars at home and lim­it­ing use of au­to­matic sprin­kler sys­tems to six hours a week.

The crux of Fraser’s and Wat­son’s ar­gu­ment is that Austin and other Cen­tral Texas cities have “firm” con­tracts for water, while the rice farm­ers have “in­ter­rupt­ible” con­tracts. The sen­a­tors con­tend that by re­leas­ing water to down­stream farm­ers with in­ter­rupt­ible con­tracts, the river author­ity is cre­at­ing a de facto re­stric­tion on the amount of water avail­able to cities with firm con­tracts.

Fraser said he thinks that prac­tice vi­o­lates a 1988 court or­der that he said gives firm con­tracts a higher pri­or­ity than in­ter­rupt­ible ones.

Fraser said that in 2010, the LCRA re­leased water for ir­ri­ga­tion down­stream on the same day it told cities to cut use — es­sen­tially say­ing, “‘We gave your water away, now you have to go into ra­tioning.’” He said he re­sponded by telling river author­ity ex­ec­u­tives, “You can­not re­lease water in any way that re­stricts firm cus­tomers.”

Austin of­fi­cials also op­pose LCRA’s plan to lower its thresh­old for re­leas­ing water for down­stream ir­ri­ga­tion. Austin Water Util­ity Di­rec­tor Greg Meszaros said one day’s worth of re­lease to the rice farm­ers “will wash out a year’s worth of con­ser­va­tion.” Meszaros said he is al­ready get­ting con­cerned in­quiries from water-in­ten­sive tech com­pa­nies such as Sam­sung, which has in­vested more than $13 bil­lion in Cen­tral Texas over the past decade.

It’s not clear how the dis­pute would play out if it moves to the state Leg­is­la­ture next year. Fraser and Wat­son have lit­tle doubt they could pass leg­is­la­tion through the Se­nate cur­tail­ing the amount of water re­leased for rice farm­ing dur­ing droughts, but the House is a less cer­tain bet. If a pro­posed law runs such a gaunt­let, it would wind up at the desk of Gov. Rick Perry.

Mayor Lee Leff­in­g­well said Austin has an ad­di­tional level of pro­tec­tion that should stop the re­lease: In 1999, it signed a $100 mil­lion con­tract with the river author­ity to use up to 201,000 acre feet a year, among other pro­vi­sions in­tended to en­sure Austin will have suf­fi­cient water through 2050.

“It seems in­con­ceiv­able to me that they are talk­ing about a re­lease that would put us into Stage 3” water re­stric­tions, Leff­in­g­well said. “We’re in a state now where we’re re­stricted from us­ing water we’ve al­ready paid for.”

Jay Jan­ner / amer­i­can-states­man 2009

Rice farmer Ron­ald Gert­son says cut­ting off water for a sec­ond con­sec­u­tive year will dev­as­tate an al­ready reel­ing rice-grow­ing in­dus­try.

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