Water Update – August 2022

Central Texas Water Update Newsletter for Local Elected Officials – Third Quarter – 2022

Travis and Burnet County Commissioners Courts Call on LCRA to Update Water Management Plan for Highland Lakes

Highland Lakes

Raising concerns that a water shortage could be part of Central Texas’ future if the current drought conditions continue, the Travis and Burnet County Commissioners Courts have adopted resolutions during their July meetings asking the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) to accelerate its update of the current Water Management Plan (WMP). The WMP is used to determine water allocation for the region. By unanimous votes, both courts said a more protective approach to managing the Highland Lakes is needed to address the increasing threat to the region’s water supply posed by declining inflows into the lakes, more arid weather conditions, and increasing demands due to rapid population growth.

“Central Texans are truly uniting on this cause, and it’s reassuring to see. Both Republican and Democratic leaders, people from both rural and urban areas, and counties that depend on both groundwater and surface water are all working together to protect our water supply into the future. It underscores what we all know: Water isn’t partisan,” said Jo Karr Tedder, president of the Central Texas Water Coalition.

The Central Texas Water Coalition, which recommended the resolution, continues to raise concerns that business as usual by the LCRA in managing the Highland Lakes is no longer acceptable.

Tedder testified before both courts in favor of the resolution. Karr commented, “When you go from 200,000 people in the 1960s to 2 million people in the 2020s, things are different. We hear the water wolf at the door.”

The Highland Lakes serve as the primary source of drinking water for Central Texas and the upper basin of the Colorado River. It is projected that the region could add up to 1.5 million new residents by 2030, causing many to ask, “Where will their water come from?”

Tedder pointed to the shifting 100th Meridian, long recognized as the boundary separating the more arid western part of the country from the wetter eastern half. That line has shifted eastward and now includes Central Texas.

Much of the western part of the country continues in an extended drought, with devastation from the more arid conditions being seen as major water sources dry up. The largest reservoir in the country, Lake Mead, which supplies water to 20 million residents in the Western United States, has dropped to 26% of its capacity, with mounting fears about its future.

The LCRA has said the current Water Management Plan is scheduled to be updated in 2025, meaning any changes would likely not take effect until 2027. Tedder countered, “We can’t wait that long. Unless things turn around, our lakes could be ponds. The plan must be updated to prioritize drinking water for those who rely on it for life and for our economies.”

LCRA Forced to Curtail Water Release for Rice Corporations

Rapidly dropping lake levels and a three-year drought have triggered curtailment of mass releases of water by the LCRA for three of the four rice district corporations in the Lower Colorado River Basin during those corporations’ second growing season for the year. Based on their contract with the LCRA, the Garwood rice district, located in Colorado and Wharton Counties, is not cut off and could use as much as 100,000 acre-feet of water in 2022.

Under the current Water Management Plan (WMP) used to govern lake policies, the LCRA is required to determine availability of water for interruptible customers, such as rice corporations, based on the combined storage in Lakes Buchanan and Travis, and the duration and intensity of the drought on March 1 and July 1 of each year. On July 1 of this year, the combined total water storage was 1.278 million acre-feet, below the required 1.3 million acre-foot level required, and cumulative inflows failed to meet the inflow test included in the plan. This triggered a declaration of “extraordinary drought” conditions. As a result, the LCRA was forced to cut off sending mass amounts of water downstream to rice district corporations located in counties near the Gulf Coast for the year’s second growing season.

Under the plan, the LCRA makes the same assessment for the first growing season on March 1. Despite being a year and a half into what the LCRA acknowledges is a “serious drought,” the LCRA agreed to release water for the first season due to the fact that the combined total was above the required level of 1.5 million acre-feet. The WMP does include a “look-ahead” provision that would allow LCRA to curtail releases, but it does not allow critical factors such as the current low inflows or the existence and future forecasts of continuing La Niña conditions, which continue to bring hot, dry weather to Central Texas, to be considered.

“Despite the ominous signs already apparent, the LCRA allowed full and uncurtailed releases for the first growing season, which can lead to the very rapid depletion of the reservoir lakes,” said Jo Karr Tedder, president of the Central Texas Water Coalition.

In 2020 and 2021, the LCRA released approximately 130,000 acre-feet of stored water from Lake Travis for rice corporations. The water is used to flood rice fields for weed control, despite the availability of more sustainable methods. The LCRA continues to subsidize rates charged to rice corporations, which the CTWC argues encourages waste. Businesses and local governments currently pay $155 per acre-foot of water, while the LCRA charges rice corporations $69 per acre-foot, which fails to cover the full cost of the water.

Since March 1 of this year, the lake levels have dropped 23% and are currently at just 59% of their capacity. Unless the current drought pattern subsides, the lakes could be on track to drop to 50% of their capacity by the end of the summer.

“It’s not like we didn’t see this coming. Drier weather patterns are our new normal, and management of our water supply must shift to reflect this,” Karr said. “Our last drought continued for seven years, and indicators such as inflows into the lakes from this drought are worse than they were then. We don’t know when this will end, and no plan is in place to prepare for a drought worse than the last one we had.”

The Time Is Now to Begin Review of the Current Water Management Plan
By Jo Karr Tedder, president – Central Texas Water Coalition

CTWC continues to express its concern about the ability of the existing LCRA Water Management Plan (WMP) to protect the water supplies in the Highland Lakes and the entire river basin.

While the current WMP is an improvement over past plans, it falls short of providing the level of protection needed in today’s rapidly evolving dynamics of supply and demand for water in Central Texas. The plan now includes three evaluation dates during which actual conditions are reviewed and real-time decisions are made on how water is to be allocated. However, CTWC does not believe the current WMP goes far enough. For example, even with very low inflows to the lakes, during warmer, drier conditions with projections of continuing drought, the March 1 evaluation date under the current WMP defined the current conditions as “normal.” This allowed for decisions on mass releases for interruptible customers, like rice corporations, that probably should not have been made. The conditions sure don’t feel “normal” today.

Jo Karr Tedder, president – Central Texas Water Coalition

CTWC considers the current and projected conditions as cause for alarm because, as we understand it, LCRA does not plan to initiate an update of the existing WMP until March 2025. That’s three years away. And then the submittal of an amendment application to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to update the current WMP could take another two years after that. In other words, unless adjustments to the current WMP are initiated immediately, and optimistically assuming that the TCEQ reviews and approves LCRA’s application only two years after its receipt, LCRA will spend at least five more years managing the lakes under an inadequate WMP. That’s too long and too risky given how rapidly the situation in Central Texas is changing.

CTWC believes a targeted review of the WMP should begin as soon as possible. The review should focus on the specific elements of the WMP that have the greatest impact on the sustainability of the upstream water supplies. 

The issues surrounding management of our water supply are complex – perhaps even overwhelming. But it’s easier to face challenges together. To do that, firm customers, local leaders and stakeholder organizations like the CTWC need to hear what the LCRA board members and managers are thinking, and to hear those thoughts expressed and considered in public. It’s easier to understand and have confidence in a government entity’s actions when the decision makers don’t keep their communications behind closed doors.

During the 2018-2019 sunset review of the LCRA, Sunset Commission staff found that the agency’s practices did not fully embrace open and responsive government. It found the agency maintained an inconsistent and reactive approach to public engagement, was not providing key information to the public, had a lack of public approach to budget transparency, did not clearly explain water funding, and that the agency’s lack of transparency often led to incorrect and unnecessary distrust from stakeholders. CTWC hopes the LCRA can rise to the occasion — especially now, when transparency, collaboration and stakeholder engagement are warranted. Taking steps to begin the process to update the current WMP amid changing conditions that threaten our future water supply is that occasion. Doing so would send a strong signal to those of us who are watching.

While many of us hoped that the hot, dry weather we’ve seen in recent years in Central Texas was an aberration, it’s become clear that these weather patterns are not going away anytime soon. The data show without a doubt that heat and drought are becoming an increasing threat both locally and around the globe.

In Monterrey, Mexico, extreme drought, poor water planning, and overuse mean that the dams are now almost dry and water is currently available to residents just six hours a day; some people have gone weeks without running water. Cape Town, Santiago and New Delhi have come dangerously close to running out of water as well, along with countless other cities. Closer to home, 61% of the contiguous U.S. was experiencing moderate to exceptional drought in March of this year. Not only does drought threaten water supplies — several critical reservoirs have dropped to historic lows — it increases the risk of wildfires, which have been particularly destructive in western states and Texas.

Here in Central Texas, we’re breaking records left and right that demonstrate the same alarming trends. In the past few months alone, Austin has had the hottest December, May, and June on record with July expected to follow. Central Texas saw less than half its average rainfall this spring, and went 27 days without rain in January. While we’re no strangers to hot, dry weather, historically the region has relied on hurricanes to refill dwindling lakes. Now, the shifting drought line means that if our lakes dry up, we don’t have a backup plan.

The stressors to Central Texas’ water supply don’t end with the rainfall totals, however. Crucial runoff from rivers and creeks into the Highland Lakes has all but stopped as these sources have been tapped for new wells or stock tanks. This year, the June inflow total (the most recent month for which data are available) into Lakes Buchanan and Travis was just 2.7% of the historic June average. Simultaneously, the Central Texas population has exploded in recent years, and that trend is expected to continue. At a time when inflows and rainfall are decreasing sharply, it is projected that the region may require over 40 billion additional gallons of water each year through 2030. The numbers paint a dire picture. Changing weather patterns aren’t just a prediction anymore — they’re here.

Based on a presentation during the Central Texas Water Coalition’s 2022 Water Round Table for local officials, Dr. Robert Mace, executive director and chief water policy officer at The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University, shared a model that shows with growing use, warming trends and continued reliance on reservoirs, the Highland Lakes might nearly go dry in 2040 under severe drought conditions. And the odds look good that the trends are not just going to continue, but could worsen. Running out of water would be catastrophic for Central Texas residents, businesses, farmers and ranchers, and municipalities alike. Our window for updating the region’s Water Management Plan to avoid disaster is closing fast.