LCRA decision does not bode well for lakes interests, Klaeger says
November 23, 2012, 3:00 pm by James Walker
Highland Lakes supporters and officials are still struggling to understand the Lower Colorado River Authority board of directors decision last week that almost certainly will result in a substantial amount of water being released from the lakes next spring for use by downstream rice farmers even with the lakes at critically low levels.
"This decision is incomprehensible,” Burnet County Judge Donna Klaeger wrote in an e-mail update to county residents and others. "The vote of this LCRA board could manage our lakes into a drought worse than the drought of record.”
The board’s vote last week in Fredericksburg puts drinking water for 1.5 million people in Central Texas in peril, Klaeger wrote.
If the weather in Central Texas develops in coming months as has been forecast and LCRA follows through on the plan to release almost 150,000 acre feet of water from the lakes next spring for use by the rice farmers, "it will devastate our economies and put thousands of jobs at risk,” Klaeger said.
In voting to approve an emergency drought order with a cut-off figure that is 75,000 acre feet lower than the one in a similar plan that is in effect until Dec. 31, the rice farmers seem assured of receiving approximately 121,500 acre feet from the lakes next spring.
In order for that 121,500 to reach the farmers in Matagorda, Wharton and Colorado counties, almost 150,000 acre feet would have to be released from the lakes to allow for an evaporation factor, LCRA staff members acknowledge.
Experts have said LCRA’s plan to release the water to the rice farmers next year translates to a 37 percent chance of draining the lakes to drought of record levels.
"The stakes are too high,” Klaeger said.
LCRA directors Scott Spears and Tim Timmerman, both of Austin, who provided the key votes that allowed the drought order to pass with the 775,000 acre feet trigger point instead of 800,000 proposed by Burnet County director John Franklin, indicated it was the best deal that could be wrung out of negotiations with the rice farmers, who they said were insistent on having no emergency order at all.
"This plan isn’t perfect, but it’s the best we could come up with,” said Timmerman, an Austin developer who is the chairman of the LCRA board of directors.
"Really?” said Klaeger. "The disaster plan worked this year. We don't have a lot of water, but we have water to sustain Central Texas.
"LCRA needs a long term drought plan. We cannot continue addressing it year to year.”
Timmerman and Spears’ motivation for making what they view as a one-sided deal with the rice farmers, still has lakes supporters scratching their heads.
Klaeger and others clearly believe there is more to their actions than meets the eye.
"So, what's really going on?” Klaeger wrote. "What's that missing link? It has to be something so big that they would risk managing the Highland Lakes into a drought worse than the drought on record!”
Some speculated that Gov. Rick Perry, who makes appointments to the board, ordered the two Austin directors to compromise with the rice farmers, but no one cited any direct knowledge of that and Perry’s office issued a statement denying any involvement by the governor.
"The governor did not try to persuade the LCRA directors to make a decision one way or another,” spokesman Josh Havens said. "It is important to note that the LCRA makes its own independent decisions based on what is right for the people of Texas.”
Central Texas Water Coalition President Jo Karr Tedder and some other lakes interests believe rice farmers ally Sen. Glen Hegar, R-Katy, played a part in the reported compromise between Timmerman and Spears and the farmers’ supporters on the board.
Hager is chairman of the Senate Nominations Committee and will have significant influence over Perry’s nominations to the board.
Spears and Timmerman’s terms on the board expire next year and it is unclear if they hope to be reappointed to another term.
"He (Hegar) is a powerful player in all this and he is the rice farmers’ guy,” Tedder said.
A call to Hegar’s office seeking comment from the senator was not returned.
The 2013 drought order passed by the LCRA board sets the trigger point for the water to be released to the rice farmers at 775,000 acre feet on either Jan. 1 or March 1, 2013.
The trigger point in the present drought order is 850,000 acre fee and resulted in the rice farmers being denied water this year when the combined storage of reservoirs Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis was below that level.
The storage in the two reservoirs was 854,000 acre feet, 42 percent of capacity, Monday morning and records indicate the level has been falling at about the rate of an acre foot per day for approximately the past month.
In-flows into Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis have been miniscule in that time and the long-range weather forecast calls for little to no rain in the upper Colorado River basin until next spring.
The reservoirs’ storage levels will likely be a little more than 800,000 acre feet on Jan. 1, assuring the rice farmers get their water, but could be close to the 775,000 acre feet mark on March 1, experts believe.
The resulting release of almost 150,000 acre feet of water from the lakes for the rice farmers could take them below 650,000 acre feet next summer and result in a mandatory 20 percent curtailment of water use for all of LCRA’s water customers, including cities such as Austin, Burnet and Marble Falls and industrial and power plants.
"The bottom line is when the water is gone, it's gone, with no prediction of rain in the next several months,” Klaeger said.
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