Water Update – February 2023

Central Texas Water Update Newsletter for Local Elected Officials – First Quarter – 2023

Legislation Filed to Add Elected Members to LCRA Board

State Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) has filed Senate Bill 2374 that would add two publicly elected members to the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) Board of Directors. The legislation is in response to mounting concerns about a lack of transparency and accountability at the organization. State Rep. Ellen Troxclair (R-Austin) has filed the companion legislation (House Bill 5226) in the Texas House of Representatives.

The legislation would provide for two elected members of the board chosen during the November general election of even-numbered years. The two directors would be elected at-large from the entire district within the LCRA’s service area, including all counties that receive water or electricity from the district. The elected directors would serve six-year terms beginning on Feb. 1 following the election.

The LCRA board is currently comprised of 15 members appointed to six-year terms by the governor. The board is responsible for formalizing priorities and corporate direction for the general manager and staff of the LCRA. Additionally, the board approves certain projects, approves large expenditures, and reviews progress on major activities and issues related to its mission of managing the lower Colorado River.

In recent years, claims of a lack of openness and public responsiveness have plagued the organization. In response, state officials and others, including the Texas Sunset Commission, have called for greater transparency at the LCRA. Citing problems with their transparency and accountability in general, the Legislature placed river authorities under sunset review in 2016.

During the 2018-2019 sunset review process of the LCRA, sunset staff confirmed what individuals and organizations had consistently indicated for years: Improvements were needed in the areas of financial transparency and public engagement. In its June 2019 report to the Legislature, the Sunset Advisory Commission stated that the LCRA board practices did not fully embrace open and responsive government. The report cited the organization’s inconsistent and reactive approach to public engagement, lack of a public approach to budget transparency, failure to provide key information to the public, use of inconsistent and incomplete agendas, and lack of committee transparency. The report stated the LCRA’s “lack of budget transparency leads to incorrect conclusions and unnecessary distrust from stakeholders.”

Stakeholder groups have argued that the LCRA’s practices seem intended to obfuscate on key issues and stifle public engagement and input.

In its December 2020 interim report to the Legislature, the Senate Committee on Water and Natural Resources found that: “Without transparency, there is no public trust and this leads to hostility from property owners who rely on the resources provided by the river basins. When considering the missions of river authorities to protect natural resources and provide services, the case can be made to require more oversight for the governance of these entities.”

The 2020 Senate committee concluded, among other things, that the state should “examine adding an elected member to River Authority boards in order to give the public needed input into the process.” Sen. Campbell filed SB 2374, having had experience with an all-elected river authority board in the southern part of her senatorial district that stretches from northern San Antonio to northwest Travis County. The Bexar County portion of her district is served by the San Antonio River Authority (SARA), which is governed by an all-elected board of directors. SARA and its board are responsible for preserving, protecting and managing the resources of the San Antonio River Basin. SARA is generally perceived as an open, fair and effective manager of the basin.

2022 Worst Year on Record for Water Flowing Into Highland Lakes

Water inflows into Lakes Buchanan and Travis during 2022 were the lowest recorded since the lakes were created in 1938 and 1942. Inflows for the year, totaling 38 billion gallons (118,361 acre-feet), were about 10% of the yearly average for the lakes since their creation and roughly one-fourth of average annual inflows recorded during the worst drought on record (2008-2015).

Many consider the declining inflows to be perhaps the most ominous of the signs that the region’s primary water supply could be at risk unless conditions change and action is taken to update the current Water Management Plan (WMP) used by the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) to manage the lakes. Eight of the top 10 worst annual inflow totals for the Highland Lakes have occurred since 2006.

Beginning in mid-2022, concerns about the dramatic declines in inflows to the lakes led the Central Texas Water Coalition (CTWC) to call upon the LCRA to initiate an update to the WMP to address its flaws and adopt a more protective approach to managing the lakes. The current WMP allows LCRA to wait until 2025 to prepare and submit an application to update its WMP. In spite of requests from its stakeholders (including elected officials), the LCRA has refused to initiate this important work toward an updated WMP.

CTWC’s research indicates that water modeling based on historical data is no longer a scientifically sound method for predicting inflows to the Highland Lakes. Shifting weather patterns have impacted the volume of rainfall that enters the lakes, and manmade structures in the upstream reaches of the drainage areas that feed the lakes are capturing surface water before it reaches the lakes. Factors that contribute to declining inflows to Lakes Buchanan and Travis include:

  • Construction of the O.H. Ivie Dam (Concho, Coleman and Runnels counties), which has removed 60% of the watershed feeding Lake Buchanan.
  • Construction of approximately 40,000 stock ponds and tanks.
  • Drilling of 100 large alluvial wells.
  • A shift of the “dry line” (100th meridian) and higher temperatures increasing evaporation.

“Structural changes to our watershed are contributing to permanent declines in water flowing into the lakes. These changes, combined with shifting weather patterns, a rapidly increasing population, and water management policies that encourage waste among corporate irrigators, are putting the region’s future water supply at risk,” said CTWC President Jo Karr Tedder.

Tedder continued, “The current Water Management Plan does not account for a trend of significantly declining inflows and must be updated to adjust to this new reality. The plan was designed for climate conditions that no longer exist. An update to the plan must begin as soon as possible to address the flaws that the current drought has revealed.”

As more arid conditions become the norm for the region, large rainfall events are needed to restore the water supply. Not only can those events not be scheduled, but CTWC claims relying on them to sustain the lakes places the region’s water supply at risk. With the record low inflows of 2022 now on the books, all eyes will be on the months ahead to see if conditions will improve in 2023. Weather forecasts are not in agreement about the possibility of drought relief. Unfortunately, inflows to begin the year continued a downward trend, with January 2023 recording a total of 3.1 billion gallons (9,396 acre-feet) — 19% lower than the January 2022 inflows, which began what is now the worst year of inflows in the history of the lakes.

CTWC Continues Push for Update to Water Management Plan for Highland Lakes

Depletion of one-third of the region’s surface water supply in 2022 and 50% in the last three years underscores the public concern about the future of the water supply for 2 million Central Texans. This seems especially dangerous as the region experiences a new normal of declining inflows into the lakes and dramatic population and business growth that is increasing the water demands of municipalities and businesses. The region is no longer blessed with the historical 1 million acre-feet of inflows per year to support high usage, including downstream irrigation that uses billions of gallons of water each year to flood rice fields. In addition, unexpectedly, very large environmental flow requirements added into the LCRA Water Management Plan for Matagorda Bay are also contributing to rapid depletion at the higher lake levels during periods of drought and low inflows.

Shifting weather patterns and structural changes to the watershed that are reducing inflows are not the only challenges that threaten the water supply. The current drought continues to expose flaws in the management of the lakes, including the over-commitment of water availability as evidenced by policies that allow for the selling of water in the water supply reservoirs (Lakes Buchanan and Travis) without an adequate safety margin — selling water until the lakes have been emptied. The Central Texas Water Coalition believes a review of current water policies for the lakes should include the consideration of a reserve level in the Water Management Plan greater than the current 600,000 acre-feet to support the growing population and business needs.

Future water availability projections for Central Texas include water from the future operations of the Arbuckle Reservoir near the Texas coast (29 billion gallons/90,000 acre-feet per year), despite the fact that the water is not accessible to the Upper Basin (Central Texas) and the reservoir is not yet operational.

Large releases for downstream irrigation operations as the drought intensified were not considered problematic by LCRA under the current Water Management Plan. Only after the region reached extreme drought conditions in the summer of 2022 were those releases halted for some, but not all, of the irrigation districts. The Garwood District can continue to be provided with up to 32.6 billion gallons/100,000 acre-feet of water each year despite the dire weather conditions and declining water supply levels.

Additionally, the highly subsidized water rates for LCRA’s agricultural irrigation customers enable high water usage and waste. Water prices set by the LCRA for 2023 are $155 per acre-foot for firm customers, compared to just $74 per acre-foot for agricultural irrigation customers, with the majority of that amount covering the canal distribution costs. CTWC believes water price subsidies should stop, including the practice of allowing water to be ordered and then canceled, even after its release, without the requestor being required to pay a substantial amount for the water that is declined.

CTWC’s continuing requests for greater transparency and open communications with the LCRA board seem to be unrecognized, resulting in a sense that residents of Central Texas have no representation on the LCRA board. The policies, practices and requirements that impact or govern LCRA’s management and operations are complex and challenging to decipher, which leads to heightened concerns about the sustainability of the water supply that LCRA controls.

CTWC also believes that new water supply projects for Central Texas are essential to support the expected continued growth in the region. The organization supports increased investments in water infrastructure for the state, including new supply sources.

CTWC is currently planning additional events for elected officials, business leaders and the public to mobilize renewed support for a review and update of the current Water Management Plan. The organization is working with legislative leaders to improve the openness of the water management process and for the representation of broader interests among the LCRA board.

CTWC encourages elected officials in Central Texas to voice their support for a review and update of the Water Management Plan to the LCRA and to support legislative efforts to improve transparency and enhance public discussion of LCRA’s water management policies.

Water Challenges of the West Show a Glimpse of the Future for Central Texas

Is Texas turning into California? In one very important way, the answer is clear — and it’s not good news for anyone. The Western U.S. has been experiencing increasing threats from its ongoing megadrought for years, including wildfires, cities running out of water, reservoirs nearly drying up, and municipal drinking water becoming contaminated. Unfortunately, this alarming reality can give Central Texans a peek into what we can expect in coming years — and allow us to plan before disaster strikes.

Texas is getting drier. The 100th meridian, which has historically divided the drier western part of the United States from the wetter East, has been shifting eastward. Unfortunately for Central Texas (much of which is now on the dry side of the line), the shift appears to be permanent, and it isn’t showing signs of stopping. That means that our weather patterns are becoming similar to those of California and other Western states, and what’s happening in those states is now a strong predictor of what will happen here.

The American West is now 23 years into a megadrought worse than any in recorded history, which comprises the last 1,200 years. Simply put, the West is running out of water. Currently, Western states are arguing about how to ration water from the shrinking Colorado River; there is just not enough for everyone to continue business as normal, and the problem is projected to get worse. This isn’t just a matter of watering the lawn less, either: The city of Scottsdale, Arizona, recently cut off water to around 1,000 residents of the city’s Verde Foothills suburb, citing a need to conserve for its own residents and businesses due to the Colorado River drought.

Other communities are likely to follow. The Colorado River supplies water to two of the country’s largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Together, these reservoirs provide water to over 60 million people and electricity to many millions more. Both lakes are critically low and may never again be full; Lake Powell is down to 23% capacity and Lake Mead is down to 30%. Power generation has decreased in both as a result, and in March 2022 Lake Powell hit a historic low — just 35 feet above the minimum level needed to generate power at all. There is estimated to be a 27% chance that Lake Powell will stop generating electricity altogether in the next four years.

Here in Texas, we’re lucky not to be in as desperate a place — yet. But Texas saw some not-so-proud milestones in 2022 as well. Across the state, there were over 3,000 boil-water notices in 2022 alone, or an average of over 8.2 per day, an indication that Texas’ water supply is becoming unstable. Over 165,000 people in the Odessa area were without water entirely for almost 48 hours during a heat wave in June. And Medina Lake near San Antonio is at its lowest point since 2015, leaving some previously lakefront properties no longer even lake-view properties. According to the Texas Water Development Board, Texas will be 7 million acre-feet short on water in 50 years. But there’s plenty of tragedy and suffering that will happen before we run out of water entirely. This is clear simply by looking around us, and looking to the West to see our future. The good news is, by planning ahead now — through measures such as upgrading old, leaking infrastructure; eliminating outdated agricultural irrigation methods; and implementing marine and brackish groundwater desalination technologies — we may still be able to avoid catastrophe. Our window is shrinking, however — at the same rate as the Colorado River.