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Water issue offers a lesson in humility

TCEQ commissioners pointed out in last week's meeting that the only real solution to end the water crisis is a serious change in the weather.

Following a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) ruling on a Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) request to curtail the release of downstream water stored in the Highland Lakes beginning today, critics of the ruling say they are confused and uncertain what the decision means.

While LCRA officials are not commenting on the ruling, Jo Karr Tedder, representing the Central Texas Water Coalition, a group of mostly Central Texas cities that depend upon water in the Highland Lakes and who advocated for strong support by the Commission, says she was stunned and accuses commissioners of catering to the pressure from rice farmers in the Lower Colorado River Basin.

At issue was an emergency request drafted by LCRA and presented to TCEQ last month that requested a variance from the LCRA Water Management Plan concerning the amount of water to be released from the Highland Lakes downstream on the Colorado River for use by lower basin users, including communities along the river and to farmers, specifically rice farmers in a three-county rice-rich area.

For more on Southwest water issues, please check out Southwest Farm Press Daily and receive the latest news right to your inbox.

The emergency request indicated the current state water plan is threatened by an intense, ongoing drought and the growing needs of "firm" water customers in Central Texas. The emergency request calls for temporarily curtailing the release of water downstream as a necessary emergency response to protect the health and welfare of people and property.

Not only have some lake area communities felt the pain of drought as water demand outpaced municipal water contracts with LCRA, in many cases it sent local officials spinning as lake levels dropped below intake levels, meaning intakes had to be lowered, projects that came with an unexpected and hefty price tag.

TCEQ denies request to set water trigger

During public comments made at several recent hearings on the issue, including multiple TCEQ meetings, lake area officials and residents told stories about running out of water and were advised to limit showers to only once a week. Fire officials across Central Texas testified they were concerned over having enough water resources to fight fires.

In addition to approving a water plan variance, the LCRA emergency request also sought to establish a minimum combined lake storage level that would control the release of water downstream if lake levels dropped below the minimum. If the level dropped to or below the minimum level, it would "trigger" the use of a standing emergency order that would decrease or stop the flow of river water downstream to interruptible users.

The idea behind the trigger level was actually born over two years ago when LCRA made their first of what now has become three consecutive years of emergency requests. For the first two years, TCEQ was asked to set the trigger level at 850,000-acre feet (AF), meaning if the combined storage level dropped below that, the emergency order would kick in automatically and curtailing water downstream would begin immediately.

But when LCRA issued the latest emergency request in December, it asked that a tougher trigger level of 1.1 million AF be established, meaning in effect that lake levels would need to rise over the 1.1 million AF level before lower basin water users would return to normal water flows and be allowed to take and use water from the river.

Lower basin users had their day in hearings and at TCEQ meetings as well. A coalition representing rice farmers, municipal water districts, irrigation districts and others testified that curtailing water from the Highland Lakes not only hurt agriculture, but also the trickle-down effect had resulted in lost jobs, a major hit on rural economies, and threatened not only water fowl and wildlife in the region but also the health of the shrimp, oyster and fishing industries in Matagorda Bay. In other words, it was a tragedy for the environment and ecosystem of coastal Texas.

Water dilemma

The issue highlights the dilemma of a water crisis in Texas and much of the nation and world, and also tests the ability of state and federal government to protect the rights of all of its citizens over critical issues, like who owns the water in streams, rivers, lakes and aquifers. TCEQ Commissioners knew that regardless of how they ruled on this emergency order, one group or the other was going to benefit at the expense of the other.

Farmers and lower basin water users were consistent in pointing out over the last two years that they fully understand the risks involved in serious crisis, like the one brought about by the current drought. They were careful to make known their willingness to sacrifice—to give up their legal rights to use much of the water in the river, in spite of it being used to grow the food that stocks grocery shelves across Texas and the world.

For two years running –now three—rice farmers will grow at least 50 percent less rice than they typically produce. The three-county area, including Wharton, Colorado and Matagorda counties, historically has accounted for 40 percent of the state's overall rice production.

Consequently, the water crisis on the Colorado River may be a good example of the brewing and potentially explosive issue of growing water shortages in Texas—and much of the nation.

TCEQ Commissioners were acutely aware that the issue would garner widespread interest and they were undoubtedly feeling the rising pressure coming from interest groups and even from two state senators.

While elected lawmakers are prohibited from pressuring state agencies, by using the media and speaking platforms that stretch from the State Capital to local civic club luncheons, lawmakers with a vested interest in an issue can easily turn up the heat on public officials and even State Commissioners by making weighted comments at press conferences or, as with this event, drafting letters of concern and condemnation.

For instance, in a joint statement, state Sens. Troy Fraser and Kirk Watson, representing constituents in Austin and in the Highland Lakes area, said the TCEQ decision passed down last week fell short of the mark.

No trigger set

The comments were in reference to TCEQ Commissioners approving the emergency order but failing to set a trigger level for downstream releases. While the order prohibits release of water for a period of 120 days, it fails to address the issue of resumed water releases based upon a minimum lake storage levels.

"By failing to establish a combined storage trigger, TCEQ essentially avoided addressing the hard questions," the senators stated. "Because lake conditions and forecasts are so bleak, the TCEQ was able to punt on the decision of a combined storage trigger. Instead, the commissioners issued a ruling preventing the release of water to interruptible customers under the current conditions."

While the current Colorado River water crisis is a concern for more than an estimated two million Texas citizens—urban rooted and rural—more importantly, it serves as a window into the future. If many forecasters are right and the drought is far from being over, the kind of water crisis currently in process along the Colorado basin will be felt along all other streams and rivers in the state, perhaps across the nation.

It will require neighbors putting heads together with fellow neighbors, city dwellers and rural folk alike, and representatives from government and industry, to generate new ideas and new methods of conserving and sharing resources.

While many will accuse TCEQ of failing to side with Austin and surrounding communities in their fight to control water that runs through the area and choosing instead to watch after the needs of rural Texas, the truth is, commissioners should be applauded for daring to take a stand on the merits of the law in the face of mounting public opinion.

They chose to make the hard decision instead of the easy way out; they voted to uphold the rules adopted by citizens representing a variety of water users, including urban, rural, residential and industrial.

As pointed out repeatedly by these same commissioners, there is a LCRA Water Management Plan, and that plan sets the rules on how water is to be shared in all 16 of the regional districts that benefit from the river. That plan is adopted on a regional basis by groups representing government, industry and both urban and rural water users.

The decision doesn't attempt to alter the Texas state water plan by establishing permanent changes to water policy that would bypass the work of 16 regional groups that have collectively agreed to operate under the terms of the same plan. It does encourage, however, a fresh look at the water plan with an objective of revamping the plan to reflect the changes brought about by the drought.

As pointed out by the commission, an emergency order is the process of establishing temporary rules to address a crisis, and not a way to change or alter state water policies.

Texas rice farmers, wildlife and marine conservationists, and rural communities are applauding TCEQ commissioners for their stand on the current issue. While sacrificing another year of irrigation water represents an economic hardship for all parties, it also represents a sacrifice that is necessary as a result of the historic drought.

In reality there are no winners in a serious water crisis. The drought adversely affects urban and rural areas, and private, commercial and industrial interests alike. But sticking to the rules, the laws, and the policy is not only a good idea but also represents the only reasonable solution to the growing problem.

Like TCEQ commissioners pointed out in last week's meeting, the only real solution to end the water crisis is a serious change in the weather.


Also of interest:

Rancher signup coming for federal drought relief

Climatologist, Water Development Board see continued drought

Climate change causing historic drought

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