LCRA requests emergency drought relief from state

November 14th, 2012 at 3:00 pm by under Weather

Because of the prolonged drought, LCRA will for the second year in a row ask the state for permission to send less Highland Lakes water to downstream farmers than required by its state-approved Water Management Plan.

The LCRA Board voted 10-4 to ask the state for the emergency drought relief for 2013 at its regular Board meeting on Wednesday.

The vote came after dozens of people addressed the Board on the issue during two days of public comments during Board and committee meetings in Fredericksburg.

“We appreciate all people who took time out of their lives to come and speak to the Board in person,” said LCRA General Manager Becky Motal. “It highlights the toll the drought and the availability of water has on all of us. It is clear the Board needed to take steps to protect our firm customers such as cities and industry, while still balancing the need of others who depend on the lakes.”

LCRA now will ask the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for permission to limit downstream farmers to 121,500 acre-feet of water from the Highland Lakes in 2013 if the combined storage of lakes Travis and Buchanan is between 775,000 and 920,000 acre-feet on Jan. 1 or March 1. If combined storage is above 920,000 acre-feet on Jan. 1 or March 1, LCRA would follow the 2010 Water Management Plan, which would make about 180,000 to 185,000 acre-feet of Highland Lakes water available for downstream farmers. Water for second crop, if any, would be available if combined storage is at or above 850,000 acre-feet on June 1 or Aug. 1. The amount available would depend on how much Highland Lakes water is supplied for first crop.  

The amounts available for the farmers are at the downstream river pumps. LCRA would have to release approximately 20 percent more water from lakes Travis and Buchanan to account for evaporation, seepage into the river bank and other losses as the water flows downstream.

Last year, because of the extreme drought, LCRA asked the state for and was granted emergency relief that cut off Highland Lakes water to most downstream farmers this year.  Last year was the most severe single-year drought on record.

There has been more rain this year than last, but not enough for the lakes to rebound. There was hope earlier this year that an El Niño weather pattern would develop and bring wetter than normal weather this fall and winter. However, that did not materialize and forecasts no longer call for an El Niño.

October is historically the third wettest month of the year in Central Texas, but only about an inch of rain fell in most areas of the Lower Colorado River basin last month. That’s about one-quarter of October’s average rainfall. Currently, lakes Travis and Buchanan, the region’s water supply reservoirs, contain about 860,000 acre-feet of water (about 43 percent full). The amount of water flowing into the lakes this year from its tributaries, called inflows, has been 35 percent of average. Last year inflows were the lowest on record at about 10 percent of average.

“This drought that has plagued our region continues,” said LCRA Board Chairman Timothy Timmerman. “Some of our inflows into the Highland Lakes have been lower than we saw during the worst drought this region has even seen, which is known as the Drought of Record. This plan isn’t perfect, but it’s the best we could come up with.”

The goals of today’s decision include protecting LCRA’s firm industrial and municipal customers by reducing the chance that the lakes will fall to the point where LCRA’s Board has to declare a drought worse than the Drought of Record and curtail water to firm customers. That would occur if the combined storage of lakes Travis and Buchanan fell to 600,000 acre-feet.  The proposed relief is also intended to reduce the risk that water would be released to start a crop next year and then cut off mid-crop if the combined water storage of lakes Travis and Buchanan hit 600,000 acre-feet. The crop would be ruined, and the water would have been wasted.

The Board also noted that it could revisit the issue at a later date if conditions warrant. LCRA expects to send the request for emergency relief to the TCEQ within a week. Downstream irrigation season runs roughly from mid-March through mid-October.

 “We tend to discuss possible releases of water from the Highland Lakes in terms of acre-feet of storage and forecasts for future weather conditions, but it’s really all about lives and livelihoods,” Timmerman said. “We are keenly aware of that and always have that foremost in our minds as we decide how to best manage the water in the Highland Lakes under these conditions.”

The emergency relief LCRA is requesting is similar to a provision in LCRA’s proposed Water Management Plan for lakes Travis and Buchanan that is currently pending with TCEQ. That amended plan was approved by the Board after an 18-month process involving stakeholders in the basin, including municipal customers, lakes-area residents, environmental interests, business and agriculture.

LCRA is also pursuing several new water supply projects to create at least 100,000 acre-feet of water by 2017.

“This situation shows precisely why LCRA is aggressively moving forward with plans to build as many as three downstream reservoirs,” Motal said. “We need to find new water supplies, and building new reservoirs downstream will help us capture water that otherwise would flow into the Gulf.”

The LCRA Board typically meets in Austin, but meets in locations throughout the LCRA service area several times a year. The decision to move the November meeting to Fredericksburg was made months ago, largely because visitors to the F1 event in Austin are taking up most of the available hotel rooms in Austin.

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