May 20, 2014
Today, the TCEQ has rejected the LCRA’s 2012 Water Management Plan application and published their own draft proposal. The Water Management Plan is required as a condition of LCRA’s oversight of the water permitted for storage in Lakes Travis and Buchanan, and it specifically sets out the conditions under which water may be provided to interruptible agricultural customers.
LCRA is periodically required to update the Water Management Plan. In 2012, following months of stakeholder input and negotiations, LCRA submitted an application to update the Water Management Plan. Since that time, TCEQ staff has been reviewing, modeling, and evaluating that plan.
Senators Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay) and Kirk Watson (D-Austin) have consistently stood together in calling on TCEQ and LCRA to use this opportunity to “get it right” and implement a plan that satisfies LCRA’s legal obligation to protect the water supply for the City of Austin and LCRA’s other firm water customers, even during drought.
The Senators are encouraged by the direction of TCEQ’s draft proposal and provided the following joint statement:For some time now, we have been saying that the LCRA’s management of the Highland Lakes water supply during drought is inadequate and fails to honor LCRA’s legal obligation to protect firm water customers. That was the lesson of 2011, when the LCRA completely mismanaged the system by allowing for the release of more than 464,000 acre feet of water downstream to interruptible customers during a time of record low inflows to the lakes that provide the primary or back-up water supply for more than 1 million Central Texans. Lakes Travis and Buchanan were driven to record low levels of combined storage, and still have not recovered. TCEQ is charged with oversight of the Water Management Plan. Today, the Executive Director sent a strong signal by agreeing that LCRA’s proposal for water management during drought falls woefully short of what is needed to protect firm water customers. While we haven’t had time to review the draft proposal in depth, we are encouraged by its focus. It appears that the professionals at TCEQ get it. It’s amazing what can happen when experts who aren’t influenced by a particular interest get the chance to weigh in. We are encouraged by this development and we are hopeful that this signals a new day for water management in the Lower Colorado River basin. TCEQ’s draft proposal does several very important things. First, it updates the stream flow data underlying LCRA’s proposed plan by including inflows and hydrologic data through 2013. That captures some of the driest years on record in this river basin. Including that data in the model is critically important for getting the next water management plan correct. TCEQ’s proposal also recognizes that management has to be different during drought conditions. A plan that works under normal weather patterns isn’t the plan you can rely on during dry times. Anyone who has seen the Lakes or read the newspaper during the past four years, knows – or should know – that you can’t release large amounts of water to interruptible users downstream during a drought. Specific strengths of TCEQ’s proposal include a call for a more robust and comprehensive evaluation when determining whether water can be released to interruptible customers, and more protective criteria to ensure that the plan does not provide a disincentive for firm customer conservation. TCEQ’s plan calls for higher combined storage volumes before triggering a release of water to interruptible customers, as well as a combined storage floor that would suspend unsound releases automatically and immediately. Furthermore, TCEQ’s plan calls for more adaptive management by requiring the LCRA to conduct periodic evaluations and ensure that water supply for firm customers has not been negatively affected by changing conditions. This would have helped in 2011, when despite the LCRA’s top forecasting models predicting low inflows and dire consequences, the LCRA ignored the models and proceeded with water releases that threaten our water supply today. Earlier this year, an Administrative Law Judge came to a similar conclusion that an LCRA application for 2014 emergency relief fell short of what was needed to adequately protect firm water customers during this ongoing drought. The ALJ ruled that the current water management plan, combined with the ongoing drought, posed an imminent threat to public health and safety. As part of that ruling, the Judge asked for no interruptible releases to be made unless the combined storage of Lakes Travis and Buchanan was greater than 1.4 million acre feet – the most protective threshold he was able to consider. The ALJ and TCEQ staff agree that the LCRA needs to be reserving much more water in the Lakes during dry times than LCRA has in the past. Now the LCRA Board must respond to this call. It’s critical that the LCRA seize this opportunity to correct past mistakes, to restore trust with their firm water customers, and to set the Central Texas region back on firm footing when it comes to our future water supply.