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River coalition calls for better conservation after TCEQ action

TCEQ officially approved the emergency order as requested by LCRA to stop releases of interruptible water from the Highland Lakes to irrigation operations in Colorado, Wharton and Matagorda counties.

It comes as no surprise to Texas rice growers that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) voted to cut off Colorado River irrigation water to agriculture and the environment for the fourth straight year during a meeting Wednesday. That action rubber-stamps an emergency water request from the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), the group charged with managing water resources along the 862 mile waterway.

Kirby Brown, co-chair of the Lower Colorado River Basin Coalition, said the grass-roots group expected Wednesday's action and acknowledged that extended drought conditions call for emergency conservation measures. He also said the coalition believes more effort should be made to make certain that conservation efforts encompass more than just expecting agriculture and the environment to bear the heavy burden of responsibility.

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"We believe water could be—and should be—used much more efficiently in the entire river basin," said Brown following the Commission meeting. "More intensive water conservation and enforceable drought management would spread the burden more equitably."

Share the burden

Stopping short of pointing the finger at other water users for failing to contribute proportionately to water conservation efforts in the face of the drought, the group has in the past suggested that lawn watering and car washing in cities like Austin, and watering of golf courses should be rigidly curtailed. While lawn watering restrictions do exist in Austin and other cities served by the Colorado River and the Texas Highland Lakes, some coalition members have suggested that such restrictions should be expanded in urban areas.

On Wednesday (March 4), the TCEQ officially approved the emergency order as requested by LCRA to stop releases of interruptible water from the Highland Lakes to irrigation operations in Colorado, Wharton and Matagorda counties. Farmers, especially rice farmers in the Lower Basin, did not receive water from the lakes in 2012, 2013 and 2014.

LCRA officials say, however, that some water will be provided to the Garwood Irrigation District by contract.

Turning to groundwater

"As much as 25 percent of river water has been replaced by groundwater," said LCRBC member and chair of the Colorado Water Issues Committee Ronald Gertson. "This likely cannot be sustained in the long term."

Gertson, a rice farmer in the Lower Basin region, and others say that while groundwater helps, it is costly to farmers and doesn't benefit the overall water situation because too much pumping can drop groundwater levels and adversely affect recharge of the river.

Another emergency order adopted by TCEQ also allows LCRA to reduce water releases in spring 2015, from 500 to 300 cubic feet per second, to support the blue sucker habitat, a threatened fish living in the downstream portion of the Colorado River in Austin.

The Lower Colorado Coalition says they support the off-channel reservoir being built by LCRA to benefit downstream businesses, industries, agriculture and the environment.

“We are looking for some assurance that the off-channel reservoir being built in Wharton County will increase water reliability for local farmers, commerce and waterfowl,” said Brown, a water conservation specialist with Ducks Unlimited.

Without the second emergency order, about 21,000 acre-feet of stored water in lakes Travis and Buchanan would be released to flow downstream by the end of May 2015. The order prevents about 17,000 acre-feet from being released, as some water will be provided to the Garwood Irrigation District.

The emergency orders expire on June 18, 2015.

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