It’s only January, but already the Lower Colorado River Authority, LCRA, in Texas is preparing to cut off Highland Lakes water to most farmers again this year if drought conditions don’t improve. To help protect municipal and industrial customers during the drought, LCRA’s Board of Directors unanimously decided last week to withhold Highland Lakes water to most downstream farmers again this year if drought conditions don’t improve by March 1. Now, if the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality approves the emergency drought relief measure for the second year in a row and the combined storage of lakes Travis and Buchanan are at or below 850,000 acre-feet on March 1, 2013 downstream farmers will not receive any Highland Lakes water.
Last March for the first time in its 78 year history LCRA did not deliver any irrigation water to most downstream farmers under emergency relief granted by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to the obligations under the existing water contracts. This year could see a repeat of that scenario. According to Texas state water law, “first in time is first in right.” Downstream rice farmers were given first water rights in the Colorado basin, and these rights are senior to LCRA's water rights for the Highland Lakes. In fact, without the support of the rice farmers, the Highland Lakes and dams might never have been built. Rice farmers were among the strongest supporters of building the Highland Lakes and dams in the 1930s to reduce flooding and make water available during droughts. Nonetheless, it is most of the rice farmers who once more are in danger of not receiving any water under the emergency measures as the two year old drought continues.
Though 2012 was not as dry as 2011 the last few months have been particularly dry. Rainfall in October through December was the third driest on record for that period. Because the ground has been so dry lately, it would take a series of good soaking rains to produce significant inflows to help the lakes recover. Unfortunately, forecasts call for rainfall across the region to be generally below normal through at least March which would trigger the emergency measures once more. The current drought has also impacted the flow of the Colorado River, the Red River and much of Texas remains in drought. Fearful of the duration of the drought with a booming economy and growing population state politicians are taking action.
The Texas legislature is considering House Bills 4 and 11 filed by Rep. Allan Ritter, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee which would utilize $2 billion of its “rainy day fund” to create a revolving loan fund for cities and water authorities to build water supply projects. The state's water plan proposes construction of up to 26 new reservoirs, desalination plants and pipelines and greater conservation and recycling of water, to meet the demands of a projected 46 million Texans in 2060. The proposed water infrastructure fund would be a giant step towards funding the state’s water plan and is supported by the Texas House Natural Resources Committee, the Sierra Club, Austin-based Environment Texas and several water authorities. This could make Texas a leader in water planing in the arid west.