We SAY: LOWER COLORADO river AUTHORITY
LCRA should honor ‘firm’ contracts
Sens. Kirk Watson and Troy Fraser have asked the Lower Colorado River Authority not to release water next year from lakes Travis and Buchanan to downstream rice farmers, given Central Texas’ continuing drought. The request is reasonable and one the LCRA should heed.
The LCRA is seeking the state’s permission to possibly release 121,500 acre-feet next year if lakes Travis and Buchanan hold a combined 775,000 to 920,000 acre-feet on Jan. 1 or March 1. While this amount is less than the 180,000 acre-feet that LCRA’s water management plan requires it to send downstream rice growers and does not signal a final decision on a release, it nonetheless reflects a possibility we can’t support.
Further, the threshold for cutting off any release downstream should be much higher. Watson and Fraser, in a Dec. 11 letter to the LCRA’s board of directors, rightly criticize the proposed cut-off trigger as one that “essentially provides a guarantee of a large release from depleted reservoirs not expected to recover any time soon.”
The amount of water that has flowed into the lakes this year is less than 40 percent of the historical average, according to the LCRA. As of Wednesday afternoon, lakes Buchanan and Travis were 41 percent full, holding a combined 833,276 acre-feet of water, according to the LCRA.
The two lakes, which supply water to much of Central Texas, were 42 percent full when, for the first time in its history, the LCRA’s board of directors decided this spring to cut off water to rice growers downstream of Austin. Current lake levels and expectations that the drought will worsen over the next several months justify a repeat of this year’s action, not a possible release of water.
Barring significant rains over the next couple of months — unlikely, according to forecasts — any release in 2013 will push lake levels closer to 600,000 acre-feet. That level will lead LCRA to declare the current drought worse than the 1950s’ drought of record and prompt it to place limits on the amount of water that can be drawn from the lakes. Austin would be forced to respond by enacting Stage 3 restrictions, which would severely limit water use in the city.
As Watson, D-Austin, and Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay and chairman of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources, noted in a visit with the Statesman’s editorial board last week, Austin has what is known as a “firm” contract with LCRA, as do many other local communities and busi- nesses. LCRA’s contracts with most rice growers, on the other hand, are “interruptible,” meaning that their water supplies can be cut off if drought conditions warrant.
Firm contracts have priority over interruptible ones. Austin and others pay for that priority: $151 per acrefoot versus $6.50 per acre-foot for an interruptible contract. (An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, or about the amount of water three average Austin households use annually.) Any water sent downstream should be released only after supplies of those who hold firm contracts are protected. Current drought conditions won’t allow a release next year without putting at risk the water owned by holders of firm contracts.
We appreciate the delicate balances, commitments and state mandates the LCRA must maintain. We support its efforts to develop projects to hold 100,000 acre-feet of water captured downstream. Such measures will reduce the amount needed for agriculture from lakes Buchanan and Travis; their water supply is needed to serve a growing Central Texas population.
If LCRA decides to release water next year, Watson and Fraser said they would encourage the courts to stop the release and would file legislation to curb the LCRA’s ability to decide future releases. We hope the LCRA’s decision makes such legislation unnecessary.
Rice fields like this one in Garwood need water, but LCRA’s contracts with most rice growers are interruptible, meaning water supplies can be cut off if drought conditions warrant.