One of the most important and overlooked episodes in the history of the American West was the battle over the water of Owens Valley in California around the turn of the 20th century.
The California Water Wars, as the quarrel became known, began a long tradition of conflict between the cities and rural areas of the West for the region’s most precious resource. One such dispute is taking place right now in Texas, over Austin’s share of the Colorado River.
The Owens Valley, populated mostly by small farmers and ranchers, had the misfortune to be the most accessible source of fresh water to the growing city of Los Angeles. The leaders of that city, eager to sustain its rapid expansion, engaged in a decades-long campaign of deception and underhanded tactics to strong-arm the locals out of their water.
Once the rights to the water were secured, they built a 223-mile-long aqueduct to divert it from Owens Valley to Los Angeles. Owens Valley dried up, and everybody knows what happened to Los Angeles.
Cut to central Texas in the present day.
The Lower Colorado River Authority, which manages water, energy and flood control for much of Central and Southeast Texas, came under fire in August for debating whether to artificially lower the level of Lake Austin by 2 to 4 feet to capture more rainfall and deal more effectively with the current drought.
Lake Austin is normally kept at a constant level with inflows from Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan further upstream.
Many Austinites, primarily those with lakefront property that would be devalued if the water receded, vehemently protested the plan to lower the water level. LCRA Chairman Timothy Timmerman announced on Sept. 12 that the idea had been shelved.
“Our board is looking at innovative ways to expand and extend our water supply, but the idea of lowering the lakes is not and has not been a serious consideration,” Timmerman said.
The next innovative proposal, it seems, is to shut off the flow of fresh water from the Highland lakes to Matagorda Bay, the second-largest estuary system on the Texas Gulf Coast. On Sept. 18, the LCRA board voted to request an exemption from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s requirement that it release fresh water from the lakes to the bay.
If the LCRA gets its way, the denial of water to Matagorda Bay would persist for 120 days, or until the combined level of Lakes Travis and Buchanan returns to 900,000 acre-feet. It currently sits at 638,000 acre-feet, or 32 percent full, and in the current climate such a rise seems unlikely.
Matagorda Bay depends on the consistent influx of fresh water from the Colorado to sustain its ecosystem, which includes a wide variety of fish, shellfish, waterfowl and other wildlife. Salinity levels have risen in the estuary due to cuts LCRA has already made to the freshwater flows, and cutting the flows off completely would almost certainly push the salinity to lethal levels.
It’s not only a question of environmental conservation. One of the state’s largest shrimping fleets operates in Matagorda Bay, and local officials say the rising salinity levels have already hurt the area’s fishing industry.
Cutting the bay’s fresh water would save less than 5 percent of the amount Austin uses in a year. Austin currently operates under Stage 2 water restrictions, and residents can only water their lawns once a week. The city has done an admirable job in recent years of lowering its total water consumption despite increasing its population, but in such a severe drought we fail to understand why the lawns need to be watered at all. They’re lawns.
We agree with those in the Matagorda Bay area that the estuary needs the water far more than Austin does if Austin still has enough left over to water lawns and preserve expensive lakefront property. The amount of water that goes to Matagorda Bay is insignificant next to the amount used by Austin, and in times of scarcity, it’s only fair that the most demanding consumers should bear the heaviest burden.
Sadly, the protesters from the bay area and from state environmental groups failed to persuade the LCRA, as the louder voices of Austin’s lakefront property owners had succeeded less than a week before in convincing the agency to not lower Lake Austin. But the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has a little under two weeks to approve the agency’s request. We hope they send the LCRA back to the drawing board.