Lower Colorado River Authority

Candelario Ramirez checks a net on Buddy Treybig's shrimp boat in Matagorda Bay. The bay's shrimp stock depends on consistent freshwater inflows form the Colorado River. 

Photo Credit: Pu Ying Huang | Daily Texan Staff

Editor’s note: This is the third editorial in a series covering the lasting impact and future outlook of the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas, or SWIFT, which was established in a statewide referendum on Nov. 5. We supported the creation of the fund and the initial $2 billion investment that went into it, but recognize that the fight to preserve Texas’ supply of fresh water is far from over. Be sure to check out the first and second editorials as well.

Matagorda Bay is in a tough spot. The bay, which is the second-largest estuary on the Texas Gulf Coast, sits at the mouth of the Colorado River, and its ecosystem depends on the river’s consistent delivery of fresh water. That water supports its populations of fish, shellfish, waterfowl and other marine life. Those populations in turn support one of Texas’ largest fishing fleets and a host of tourism-based local businesses that rely on the bay’s natural beauty and bounty to stay profitable.

So it comes as no surprise that the bay’s residents grew agitated over the past few months as the Lower Colorado River Authority, or LCRA, which manages the six dams that form the Highland Lakes, openly debated whether or not to shut off the bay’s supply of freshwater and divert it to Austin, more than 160 miles upstream.

On Sept. 18, LCRA requested an exemption from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s requirement that it release the fresh water from the lakes to the bay.

The bay’s residents and state enivornmental groups vehemently protested, pointing out that water restrictions upstream in Austin were not being raised past Stage 2, at which homeowners were still allowed to water their lawns once a week.

A few weeks later fate intervened, as the wettest October on record dropped enough rainfall on the Colorado River Basin to meet the demands of both Austin and the bay without the need for additional water from the Highland Lakes. 

On Oct. 16, LCRA withdrew its application for the exemption. In the letter withdrawing the request, LCRA’s General Manager Rebecca Motal made it clear that this wasn’t the end of the issue. 

“If the board determines at a later date that emergency relief … is needed, LCRA will file a new application,” Motal said. 

In the meantime, LCRA has turned its attention to cutting off flows to rice farmers downstream of Austin in 2014 for what would be the third year in a row.

Those living on Matagorda Bay plan to put as much political pressure as possible on LCRA when the conflict resumes, and are even considering filing a federal lawsuit against it.

As the Texas Water Development Board, or TWDB, begins to determine which of the state’s proposed water projects receive funding and which ones don’t, rural vs. urban water issues like the Matagorda Bay-LCRA dispute will only occur more and more often.

That’s in part because of the vague and sometimes contradictory language of the legislation that created the State Water Implementation Fund. House Bill 4, which established the system by which the money will be distributed, mandates that no less than 10 percent go to rural projects. But it also includes this seemingly contradictory line: “The [TWDB] shall give the highest consideration in awarding points to projects that will … (1) serve a large population; (2) provide assistance to a diverse urban and rural population or (3) provide regionalization.” The bill failed to elucidate whether a “large population” was more important than a “diverse urban and rural population” or vice versa, which seems to defeat the purpose of specifying them at all.

Language like that isn’t the only reason for the unresolved question of how the competition for the water funding will play out, but it certainly doesn’t help.

These disputes are so widely varied that it would be irresponsible to make a blanket judgment about the respective merits of rural and urban water use — they should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. But in general, more strict and explicit safeguards must be put in place to prevent Texas’ major cities from using their considerable political power to accumulate more than their fair share of water. That political clout, it should be noted, only stands to grow in coming decades.

For example, according to the TWDB’s most recent population projections, Travis County will more than double in size, adding more than a million new Austinites between 2010 and 2060. By comparison, the two counties that enclose Matagorda Bay — Matagorda and Calhoun — are predicted to grow from their 2010 total of 58,083 by little more than 20,000 over the same period. That’s a wide disparity of new and thirsty voters.

As water resources dwindle and the state population rises, the burden of growing water scarcity should be shared as widely as possible, with no one group or area profiting at others’ expense. After all, it’s the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas, not the fund for Austin or Houston or Dallas. One of the TWDB’s major priorities going forward should be to make the division of funds as equitable as possible, lest those major cities continue to enjoy luxuries like green lawns and booming economies while Matagorda Bay and other rural areas cling desperately to life.

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.

According to the Lower Colorado River Authority, recent rains broke record low water levels at Lake Travis after two years of drought. Officials said Wednesday that a wetter summer could help alleviate the situation, but that water restriction will remain in place (Photo courtesy of Lower Colorado River Authority).

Central Texas lakes are in better shape than they were a year ago, and forecasts predict a cooler, wetter summer than last year, according to Lower Colorado River Authority officials.

The LCRA, which regulates the water supply of Lakes Travis, Buchanan and other reservoirs in the lower Colorado River basin, known as the Highland Lakes, hosted a Meteorologists Day on Wednesday at the agency’s Lake Austin Boulevard facility. LCRA officials presented their predictions regarding weather and lake levels this summer.

David Walker, supervisor of LCRA river management, said the wet weather during the past three months broke a two-year streak of below average inflows to the lakes, but the river authority still anticipates that mandatory water restrictions will go into effect this summer.

“There is tremendous variability in the amount of water that comes into our system,” Walker said. “Our water supply is totally dependent on the weather.”

LCRA general manager Becky Motal said spring rains did not benefit the water level of the Highland Lakes because they fell downstream of Lakes Travis and Buchanan. If the authority can devise ways to capture and store some of that surplus water, less water would be needed from the Highland Lakes and their water levels could rise, she said.

“This year alone we have had 600,000 cubic feet of excess water downstream of the Highland Lakes,” she said. “We’re looking at off-channel reservoirs to capture that water. We want to supplement agriculture with that water so we do not have to take it out of the Highland Lakes.”

Those off-channel reservoirs might be many small ponds or gravel pits that would hold water pumped from the Colorado River, Motal said.

Bob Rose, LCRA chief meteorologist, said he forecasts a summer with more rain and less heat than last year’s. Climate conditions including soil moisture and ocean temperatures differ from what they were a year ago, he said.

“The gulf is much warmer than it was last year,” Rose said. “In the Atlantic, we’re seeing more cooling.”

Taking those conditions into account, Rose said Texas will probably not fall victim to the pattern of high pressure that made Texas extremely dry and hot last summer.

“The large area of high pressure that sat on us last year is going to sit on Colorado or Kansas,” Rose said. “Without the high sitting right on top of us, we’re not going to have a repeat of last summer.”

Printed on Thursday, April 26, 2012 as: Cooler, wetter weather may aid lake levels this summer

A UT nursing senior from Austin was killed last weekend in a boating accident.

Quynh Pham, 21, was riding on a pontoon boat with members of her family, when she fell from the front at about 5:30 p.m. Sunday according to Jennifer Glynn Schlattle, spokeswoman for the Lower Colorado River Authority. Pham was pronounced dead after EMS officials responded to the scene. Officials said it was the first boating fatality on Lake Travis this year.

“They were pulling a tube behind the boat. When the operator turned to look at it, the boat hit a wave and [Pham] fell overboard,” Glynn Schlattle said.

There were 12 people on the boat celebrating a family birthday party at the time of the accident.

“No alcohol or drugs were a factor in the accident, and charges will not be filed,” Glynn Schlattle said.

She said Park Rangers headed the investigation of the accident and representatives of the LCRA responded to the scene with EMS officials.

Printed on Tuesday, April 3, 2012 as: UT nursing student suffers fatal boating accident

Despite recent rainfall, Central Texas remains in a drought, with Lakes Travis and Buchanan less than half full.

Photo Credit: Shannon Kintner | Daily Texan Staff

Local authorities, environmental groups and the University continue to pursue water conservation policies even after heavy local rainfall in March.

With lakes Travis and Buchanan still less than half full, Central Texas remains in a drought, said Clara Tuma of the Lower Colorado River Authority, which provides wholesale water to the City of Austin. Austin is still under the enhanced stage two water use restrictions set by LCRA, she said.

“Enhanced stage two allows landscape watering no more than once a week,” Tuma said. “Enhanced stage two occurs when the combined storage of lakes Travis and Buchanan falls to 750,000 acre-feet or less.”

The recent rainfall raised water levels in those lakes, but it did not fall far enough west in the crucial aquifer recharge zone, said Tyson Broad of the Sierra Club.

“It appears that the rain fell in the low parts of the [Colorado River] basin, not in the major recharge area of porous limestone that helps the lakes stay up,” he said.

It is unlikely that Austin will return to the less severe stage one restriction, said Michael Frisch, the University’s senior building energy and water conservation project manager.

“It’s more likely that we will move to stage three,” he said. “There probably won’t be enough rain to warrant a move in the other direction.”

The stage three restriction, as it is currently defined by the LCRA, is not designed to address a long-term water shortage, said Jason Hill, spokesman for Austin Water.

“The stage three restriction code is intended to respond to a catastrophic event,” he said. “If stage two is not enough, the groups involved are looking to make changes to the code.”

Hill said the diminished water supply results from events in nature, not the mismanagement of resources. He said Austinites should be proud of the extent to which they have conserved water since the onset of the present-day drought.

“Stage two restrictions have been very effective in decreasing water consumption, and we applaud our customers,” he said. “If we haven’t done the best job [in implementing water conservation among other Texas cities], we’ve certainly been very competitive.”

Frisch said the University has been doing its part to reduce water use. He said a new irrigation system installed in response to the drought conserves water and reduces the University’s water bill.

“The new system measures how much water is evaporating from plants and knows how much rainfall there has been,” he said. “It also detects leaks and sends a signal to the main control system. We then deploy an irrigation technician to check out the problem.”

The improved watering system saves the University from consuming 50 million gallons of water each year because it prevents leaks and unnecessary irrigation, Frisch said. With the University paying $11 per 1000 gallons, according to Frisch, conserving that much water saves the University a significant amount of money.

Printed on Thursday, March 22, 2012 as: Conservation policies continue despite rainfall

Freshmen Kiera Dieter, left, and Victoria Lee, right, relax in the Gregory Gym pool Tuesday afternoon as temperatures outside reach above 100 degrees. If the trend continues Wednesday, Austin will tie the record number of above 100 degree days.

Photo Credit: Danielle Villasana | Daily Texan Staff

Today will be the 70th day this year with a temperature in the triple digits in Austin, breaking the record of 69 set in 1925, according to the National Weather Service website.

These sustained high temperatures have come along with a severe drought in the Austin area and much of Texas.

Geological sciences professor Jay Banner said La Niña, the phenomenon which cools the tropical Pacific Ocean, causes the warm and dry conditions in Central Texas, which have been more extreme during the drought.

From 1950 to 1957, Texas experienced continuous drought.

“Historically, for the past hundred years, that’s been the biggest drought by far,” Banner said.

He said the current drought has been going on for about a year and that weather models cannot easily predict how long it will last.

Banner said if this warm and dry trend continues for decades, it could be one line of evidence that global warming was the driving mechanism. He said regardless of global warming’s influence on the region’s current condition, weather models predict that increased levels of carbon dioxide will continue to cause the greenhouse effect.

“They all show that if we continue our business as usual with energy, there will be an increase in atmospheric temperatures,” Banner said.

Banner added that the drought is negatively affecting the agricultural industry in Texas.

“A lot of farmers’ crops are a total loss, and a lot of ranchers are having to sell their livestock,” Banner said.

The Lower Colorado River Authority which manages water supplies in Central and Southeast Texas, has water storage reservoirs that include Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan. Both of these combined are only 45 percent full, said LCRA spokeswoman Clara Tuma.

Tuma said the LCRA has a water management plan to regulate how much water is available. She said the plan takes long droughts, like the one in the 1950s, into account.

“The plan says if we have a repeat of that drought, it ensures that water would be available if conditions became as serious,” Tuma said.

The cities that receive water from the LCRA, including Austin, institute water conservation plans for citizens to follow.

“That’s one of the reasons we’re asking people to aggressively conserve because we don’t know when the rains will come,” Tuma said.

Austin will start stage 2 water restrictions Sep. 6. The schedule can be found at www.ci.austin.tx.us/water/.

Printed on Wednesday, August 24, 2011 as: Beat the heat.

Connor Pusey sits on a rock ledge overlooking the Barton Creek Greenbelt on Wednesday afternoon. Both farmers and outdoor enthusiasts are feeling the heat of this period of intense drought.

Photo Credit: Thomas Allison | Daily Texan Staff

Strings of 100-degree days are painful in early June. So are wildfires in May and dry farms during spring in Central Texas.

With symptoms such as these, it’s no surprise that more than 96 percent of the state is feeling the effects of a drought that began in October, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor and the Lower Colorado River Authority. About 57 percent of the state is suffering from an “exceptional” drought, the monitor’s most severe designation. Weather forecasts leave no reason to expect relief soon, and that spells trouble for farmers.

Wes Sims harvested his first crop as a teenager in the 1950s. Now the president of the Texas Farmers Union, Sims has seen the agricultural industry change over decades. After farming his way through many droughts in the past, he said he has little optimism for farmers this summer.

“I think that for most of South and Central Texas, this crop season is history,” Sims said. “To the north there remains a small window of time to plant crops, but that also looks doubtful.”

He said he believes farmers will need some form of assistance from the federal government in order to maintain good credit with banks. Recent federal budget cuts could mean a dry financial year for farmers. He said farms could have to foreclose, and the economic impact will hurt all Texans.

“[This would be] a nightmare for lots of people, not just farmers,” Sims said. “The magnitude of disaster for these losses will start with farmers, then spread its harm to the community. Many houses and farms could be lost, and nobody is crying wolf.”

In May, The Associated Press reported the drought could cost the state’s agriculture industry about $1.5 billion before it’s over, and that number keeps rising.

“It’s a very ugly picture,” Sims said.

Clara Tuma, spokeswoman for the Lower Colorado River Authority, said the energy and water supplier has asked customers to cut back by 5 percent after months of low rainfall and inflow to lakes from rivers. Cities, industries and farms comprise the authority’s customers, not individual homeowners.

She said that compared to the two-year drought that started in fall 2007 and lasted until fall 2009, this drought has been worse in intensity but not duration. Central Texas has also seen record heat. There have been 10 days with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees so far this year. In 2010, the first 100-degree day was June 16.
In the city, the drought’s impact is less direct. Austin Water Utility spokesman Jason Hill said customers in the city have been mindful of their daily water usage, and the city has been able to maintain Stage 1 water restrictions, which limit outdoor watering to twice per week. Hill said if the drought continues as expected, the city may have to enter Stage 2 restrictions, limiting watering to once per week.

“We feel confident customers will continue to be diligent about water usage, but there’s no predicting Mother Nature,” Hill said. 

Farmers, businesses, environmentalists vie for precious resource amid one of the worst statewide droughts in history

Rice farmer Ronald Gertson uses millions of gallons of water each year to maintain his crop in southeast Texas. A full Lake Travis is the lifeblood of marina owner Janet Caylor. The Sierra Club’s Jennifer Walker monitors water conditions throughout the lower Colorado River to ensure plants and animals continue to thrive.

As drought conditions worsen across Texas, these and other stakeholders who rely on the river’s reservoirs compete to ensure the Lower Colorado River Authority protects their interests. For the first time in more than 10 years, droughts are affecting every part of Texas, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Lack of rain combined with warm, windy weather have led to one of the worst droughts in history, causing wildfires across the state, said LCRA meteorologist Bob Rosec.

Last summer, the LCRA created the Water Management Advisory Committee to gather input from groups that depend on Lakes Travis and Buchanan to update the Water Management Plan, which determines allocation of the increasingly limited water resources. The two lakes are dammed sections of the Lower Colorado River that serve as the water supply reservoirs for the 600-mile section of the river the authority oversees.

It’s difficult to meet the demands of farmers, environmentalists, waterfront homeowners, business owners and others as the need for water increases with a growing population, said Mark Jordan, manager for River Management for the LCRA.

“Drought and the resulting potential curtailments cause a lot of emotions to fly,” said Gertson, a fourth-generation rice producer and committee member.

Gertson planted his crop last month, the driest March on record, according to the LCRA. Water keeps the soil saturated and prevents weeds and grasses from competing with the rice crop. During drought, Gertson and other farmers must take additional measures to ensure successful harvests.

“When we’re dry [during the] early season like this, we have to use more water in establishing the crop than we would otherwise,” Gertson said.

Rice farmers use more water from the reservoirs and pay less to access it compared to any other type of major customer, including cities or waterfront businesses, but the LCRA considers farmers interruptible customers, so their water can be cut off during drought. The authority guarantees cities, businesses and industries will keep their water even if droughts reach record levels.

The LCRA has not curtailed the farmers’ water supply, but Gertson remains cautious. With the rice industry in Texas smaller than it was decades ago, the growing demand of cities on the water supply could edge out the rice farmers, Gertson said.

Gertson’s great-grandfather moved to Texas from Kansas in 1908 and discovered a few years later that rice was a lucrative crop. Today, Gertson runs the business with his three brothers, their wives and his father. Gertson’s son Timothy, an engineer, has joined the family business against his father’s wishes.

“During Tim’s lifetime, there will be lots of times there won’t be crops planted as a result of a lack of water,” Gertson said.

Lakeside, waterfront property and business owners see rice farmers as culprits responsible for visibly low lake levels. When the authority maintained the downstream water supply to the rice farmers during the previous drought, waterfront business owners and homeowners felt an impact on their pocketbooks because of emptying reservoirs. The Highland Lakes area, which includes lakes Travis and Buchanan, is an economic engine for the state, said Janet Caylor, who is a member of the committee and owns a marina on Lake Travis.

“When the lake goes down, visits to the lake drop dramatically,” Caylor said, who bought her first marina 13 years ago.

During the previous two-year drought, business owners had to relocate all floating restaurants and marinas, and lake-area property values declined, Caylor said. Two marinas and a restaurant went out of business when droughts caused combined storage levels in Lakes Travis and Buchanan to fall below 800,000 acre-feet in 2009, she added. An acre-foot is a measurement that describes the volume of a foot of water on top of an acre.

Waterfront business owners and homeowners want to increase the minimum amount of water stored for the two lakes so the reservoirs will serve their needs. Under the current water management plan, the storage level is permitted to fall as low as 200,000 acre-feet.

“The fact that the other interest groups can engage in the conversation where they think the volume in these two lakes should be drawn to the 200,000 acre-feet level is astonishing to us,” Caylor said.

Recently, residents and business owners with an interest in lake water levels formed a coalition to acquire more political clout and urge the authority to prioritize their economic interests in the new plan, she said.

“This is about preserving revenue for the state of Texas and preserving the livelihood for these hundreds of thousands of people who moved to the [lake] area,” Caylor said.

Jennifer Walker, a water resources specialist for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, said wildlife that live in the river are at risk. From an environmental perspective, drought is a normal, cyclical phenomenon. Walker, also a committee member, said environmentalists want to avoid above-normal drought conditions in the Colorado River and the Matagorda Bay downstream.

Walker said that the river and bay provide ecological services to support wildlife. Stakeholders and the LCRA must consider how the water maintains a level and saltwater gradient that supports wildlife in the river and bay, she said.

The committee has until the end of June to agree on a possible course of action, but with each player deeply invested in the river’s future management, it’s an emotional and difficult process. The authority won’t vote on a final Water Management Plan until November 2012. It will then go to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which will go through its own planning process before implementing changes.