Water Update – February 2022

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

LCRA Doesn’t Do Right Thing to Protect Water Supply

Despite warnings from the Central Texas Water Coalition (CTWC), public comments from more than 150 individuals, and declining inflows into the Highland Lakes, the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) chose to continue with water pricing for downstream irrigators that the CTWC says encourages the waste of massive volumes of water. 

On Jan. 19, the LCRA Board of Directors voted to increase water rates paid by downstream rice corporations by only $3 per acre-foot (there are 325,851 gallons of water in one acre-foot), raising the rate to $69 per acre-foot for water sold during 2022. The new rate is less than half of the $155 per acre-foot that the LCRA charges for firm customers, such as municipalities and business users. 

The increase for the downstream irrigators is protected from going above 5% annually thanks to a “rate shock” or “ag reserve” fund the LCRA created just months ago with limited public knowledge or input. The funds are only used to offset rates for downstream irrigators. There is no such fund for business and municipal users. With LCRA’s subsidies, rice corporations pay less than the full cost of recovery, and when the delivery costs are subtracted, they actually pay very little, if anything, for the raw water. Water purchased by downstream irrigators is used to flood rice fields for weed control, an outdated and highly inefficient use of large volumes of water. CTWC says the LCRA water policies must be updated to protect the region’s primary water supply given shifting weather patterns, declining lake inflows, and the influx of up to 1 million more residents to Central Texas by 2030. 

“Flooding rice fields might make sense in places that naturally flood, but in a drought-prone region like Central Texas, we need to take better care of our limited water resources,” said Jo Karr Tedder, president of CTWC.

The organization had hoped the LCRA would use the vote on the 2022 rates to begin a shift to a more protective approach to water management that doesn’t encourage and facilitate waste. Under the LCRA’s 2021 water pricing, downstream irrigators could have requested more than 95 billion gallons of water for weed control. 

According to state law, the LCRA is required to charge “reasonable and nondiscriminatory” rates that are “sufficient to produce revenues adequate” to cover expenses. However, not only do downstream irrigators pay significantly less than municipal and business users for the same water, but the rates that the LCRA charges downstream irrigators do not fully cover the costs of providing the water, meaning rice corporations pay little or nothing for the actual water. 

“During our 2021 Water Round Table events, we heard resoundingly that local officials share our concern about where the water will come from for the record number of new residents expected in Central Texas in just a matter of years,” added Tedder. “They understand hoping for rainfall is not a long-term plan for managing what’s in store for Central Texas.” 

Tedder said the organization is exploring other options to push for needed changes, while communicating with state officials on the importance of updating the region’s water management plan.

Water Inflows into Highland Lakes Continue to Decline

Water inflows into the Highland Lakes continue their downward trend. Even with the decent rains Central Texas received throughout 2021, LCRA data show the monthly inflows into Lakes Buchanan and Travis were considerably below the average of those recorded during the 2008-2015 “drought of record.” 

According to LCRA, “December inflows totaled 12,972 acre-feet, about 20% of the December historical average since totals have been recorded and only 46% of the December average for the months during the worst drought on record. Inflows in 2021 totaled 410,764 acre-feet, which is about 34% of the yearly historical average.”

Upstream dam and reservoir construction, proliferation of private wells, and the spread of brushy vegetation are among several factors driving this continued decline. But perhaps the most telling sign is the eastward shift of the drought line within the state. 

This line divides the moist, rainy farmland of East Texas from the more arid ranchlands and desert of West Texas. It has traditionally been pegged at the 100th meridian, running from just west of Laredo north to near Abilene, and from there to the Oklahoma border. This put the Highland Lakes and much of the river basin that feeds them on the wet side of the line. 

Today, the drought line runs roughly from the southernmost tip of the state through Corpus Christi up through Dallas-Ft. Worth. As a result, the Highland Lakes and all of their inflow sources are now on the increasingly arid side of the line. There is little chance the drought line will shift west again.

(Source: National Atlas, modified by K. Cantner, AGI; via earthmagazine.org)

Under most scenarios of the changing weather pattern in Central Texas, we can expect drier conditions and warmer temperatures. As a recent study of Colorado River water use and management put it, “precipitation determines water supply, whereas temperature dictates water demand.” With average temperatures in Texas steadily rising and a new La Niña pattern bringing renewed drought, demand for water from the lakes will likely increase, putting more pressure on the limited supply.

LCRA indirectly acknowledged this in December, when it announced it would forego a drawdown of the upper pass-through lakes (Inks, LBJ and Marble Falls) due in large part to concerns about lack of rain.

Changing how we manage, allocate and use the water from the Colorado River will be hard. It will affect communities up and down the river. It’s tempting to think that rural communities stand to lose while large urban areas will benefit, but the reality is that in a time when water is in increasingly short supply, all parts of the Colorado River watershed — rural and urban — will have no choice but to adapt and change how they use water. 

We don’t have to go far to see what the future of Central Texas may look like, and to understand the perils of inaction. The Western United States is in the grip of a megadrought, with reservoirs such as Lake Mead — the main source of water for Phoenix and Tucson — down to 35% of capacity.

If it’s hard to imagine this happening here, consider that during the worst point of the 2008-2015 drought, Lakes Buchanan and Travis fell to 34% of capacity — lower than where Lake Mead stands today. Also consider that with the weather shifts coming to Central Texas, there is no guarantee the next drought will end. As state climatologist Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon has observed, “There’s some question about whether we should actually refer to what’s coming as a drought. Because a drought is something that happens temporarily and goes away. And we’re talking about something that’s effectively going to be permanent — at least in terms of human lifespan.”

For the NPR report “Study finds Western megadrought is the worst in 1,200 years,” click here.

Legislative Candidate Survey Results: Making Water a Priority

On March 1, Texas will hold the earliest primary elections in the country. This year’s primary elections will be the first conducted using the new district lines drawn by the Texas Legislature in 2021. Many of the candidates, including those who will represent those Central Texans, are new to our area and have not represented this part of the state.

While we know the politicians don’t like to fill out issue surveys, we did invite candidates for the Texas Legislature to complete a short survey that asked about their priorities and, specifically, their thoughts on water and the Highland Lakes. It was our first candidate survey, and we’re grateful to those who took the time to share with us their views. As we promised the candidates, we’re sharing their responses with you.

Click here for State Representative District 19
No response received from Nubia Devine (R), Perla Hopkins (R), or Pam Baggett (D). 

Click here for State Senate District 25 
No response received from Channon Cain (R) or Donna Campbell (R).

Key State Election Dates:

March 1Primary election day
May 24Primary runoff election
Nov. 8General election