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.

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