Senators: Give ‘firm’ contracts priority
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.”
Rice farmer Ronald Gertson says cutting off water for a second consecutive year will devastate an already reeling rice-growing industry.