TCEQ told: We need drinking water
June 28, 2013, 8:00 am by James Walker
AUSTIN — Highland Lakes stakeholders Wednesday urged the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to insist that a new water management plan for the lakes be one that will not allow the Lower Colorado River Authority to manage them into a devastating shortage of drinking water for Central Texans.
"The lakes cannot be managed by draining them and then requesting an emergency order,” Deborah Gernes, who is general manager of the Travis County Water Control and Improvement District 17 of Lakeway, one of the largest municipal water supply utilities on Lake Travis, told TCEQ staff members at a stakeholders meeting here.
TCEQ, the state’s primary regulatory agency on matters involving water, air and other environmental concerns, hosted the stakeholders meeting as part of its effort to decide on how to proceed in dealing with the LCRA’s proposed water management plan for the lakes.
Lakes interests have long been critical of LCRA’s management of the water in the lakes and are skeptical of the authority staff’s ability and willingness to ensure that water for drinking and other vital household needs is preserved in the lakes.
"LCRA took away our reserves that should have been in the lakes in 2011 and as a result we have communities throughout the upper basin that are running out of water,” said Jo Karr Tedder, president of the Central Texas Water Coalition, which has advocated for better management by LCRA of the water in the lakes.
But for an emergency drought order stopping the flow of water to rice farmers approved by TCEQ last year, "We would have reached drought of record levels in Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis last year,” Tedder said.
The LCRA cannot implement an updated water management plan until TCEQ’s commissioners sign off on it and earlier this month TCEQ executive director Zak Covar essentially rejected the plan, citing outdated and insufficient data.
TCEQ will gather its own data, including information from the historically dry years of 2011 and 2012, which was not included in LCRA’s proposed water management plan, and run its own modeling scenarios before ruling on the plan, Covar said.
The drought and LCRA’s decision to ship more than 450,000 acre feet of water downstream for use by rice farmers in Matagorda, Wharton and Colorado counties in 2011 devastated the reservoirs and they have not come close to recharging since then.
By releasing that much water from the lakes in the middle of the hottest and driest year in state history and with no inflows into the lakes, LCRA essentially managed the lakes into an emergency condition, lakes interests have contended.
"God did give us enough water in the lakes to make it through the drought, but it got used for irrigation instead,” Cassie resident Wayne Nehring told the TCEQ staff.
Ross Crow, an attorney for the City of Austin, said Austin’s request is that TCEQ "not approve any plan that results in LCRA managing the lakes into an emergency.”
In his remarks to the TCEQ staff, Crow cited a startling statistic.
"In 2011 the irrigators used more stored water (from the Highland Lakes) than the City of Austin had used in 15 years,” Crow said.
Rice farmers Ron Gertson, Haskell Simon and Lawrence Armour also spoke at the stakeholders meeting with Gertson and Simon insisting that LCRA has a legal responsibility to provide water to the interruptible customers and Armour asking that LCRA’s water management planning process be reopened.
"LCRA has a legal, moral and legislative commitment to all of the interests in the Colorado River basin,” Simon said.
"The proposed water management plan "favors firm customers to the detriment of customers in the lower basin,” he said.
Gertson seemed to take issue with the notion that water should he held in reserve for firm customer usage during a drought.
"LCRA has a legal obligation after firm demand has been met to make available any water remaining in the lakes to other customers,” he said.
Beyond asking TCEQ to sign off on a plan that would better help prevent the lakes from being managed into an emergency, the stakeholders had suggestions for how that might be accomplished.
"There should be no releases to interruptible customers unless there is a two-year supply of water in the lakes for firm customers,” said David Steed, president of the Lake Travis WCID 17 board of directors.
LCRA’s firm water customers, such as the cities of Austin, Burnet, Marble Falls and other municipalities and industrial customers, pay approximately $151 per acre foot for their water while interruptible customers, including downstream rice farmers, pay about $6.50 per acre foot.
The higher prices for firm customers is for the guarantee that water will be available to them while the interruptible customers get the big price break because their water can be curtailed.
Until last year’s emergency drought order resulted in curtailment, it had never happened to the rice farmers.
Protection of the firm customers is essential, Crow said.
"The water management plan should ensure an adequate water supply is available to the firm customers 100 percent of the time without shortage through a drought of record,” the Austin attorney said.
Thee lakes stakeholders also urged TCEQ to include 2013 data in a new water management plan.
2013 is on par with the inflow and lake levels of 2011, they said.
"The use of up-to-date current drought data is essential,” Burnet County Judge Donna Klaeger said.
"You need to come up with a way to add 2013 to your data and modeling,” said Earl Foster, general manager of the Lakeway Municipal Utility District. "It is so severe it cannot be ignored.”
Having 2013 data included in the water management plan is crucial, Crow said.
"You cannot ignore the data,” he said.
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