It has been a tough three years or more for Texas rice farmers, the fragile coastal environment, and the rural communities that dot the landscape of the Lower Colorado River after the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) was granted emergency drought status in recent years from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), resulting in decreased water flows that left rice fields dry, communities short on water and a bay system dangerously close to an environmental disaster.
With more normal rainfall amounts and a slight drop in drought intensity in recent weeks, the LCRA Board has proposed changes in its Water Management Plan that should see reduced impacts to rice farmers and slightly increased flows to Matagorda Bay—if TCEQ approves the measure.
“It is a better plan than a month ago,” said Kirby Brown, co-chair of the Lower Colorado River Basin (LCRB) Coalition, which participated in the LCRA stakeholder process to help with revisions of the LCRA water plan over the past month. “The changes mean slightly fewer water cutoffs for rice farmers and a little more water for the environment. Work by staff through a robust stakeholder process assured the best product possible under the constraints of this historic drought.”
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Still, the Coalition remains deeply concerned about the health of the Colorado River, Matagorda Bay and downstream interests.
The Coalition is made up of concerned water users on the lower Colorado, including rice farmers, communities and industry that have long depended on agriculture, cities and towns that depend on the river for water and for recreation, and environmentalists and wildlife advocates who safeguard the fragile condition of the normally-wet coastal region.
“We are dangerously close to where the ecosystem can’t recover,” said Myron Hess of the National Wildlife Federation, a member of the Coalition. “We’ve got to look at what we can start doing proactively to manage the river and bay for sustainability.”
On Wednesday the LCRA Board of Directors also approved construction of an off-channel reservoir in Wharton County that is designed to increase the River Authority’s water supply. The additional water is intended to help agricultural, industrial and municipal customers and the environment, LCRA has said.
"We are guardedly optimistic that LCRA's commitment to development of the off-channel reservoirs will reduce the pain that downstream interests are bearing as a result of this drought," said Ronald Gertson, chair of the Colorado River Issues Committee, a member of the Coalition representing rice.
The Coalition remains concerned with allowing more river water to flow downstream so that needs of lower basin users, including the environment, are met more equitably.
“If there is extra water found, it should be released downstream instead of raising the minimum storage level of the Highland Lakes,” said Judge Paul Pape of Bastrop County, a Coalition member.
Conservation measures suggested
In addition, the Coalition is expecting the Lower Colorado River Authority to strengthen water conservation measures in its drought contingency plan.
“We can’t remain silent about the absence of mandatory water restrictions for some customers while others face complete cutoff of their water,” Pape said.
The Coalition is committed to working with LCRA to address these and other issues, said Brown.
“The LCRA board and staff have worked hard and successfully in pulling stakeholders together. We look forward to working with the LCRA board and staff to proactively and comprehensively address drought management planning and water supply, and more fairly and equitably meet the needs of the entire basin,” Brown said.
The revised Water Management Plan amendments approved on Wednesday now go to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for approval.
"We are thankful that this nearly four-year process to revise the Water Management Plan appears to be coming to a close. It has been a very painful and painstaking process, but only because, thankfully, LCRA has diligently engaged its stakeholders to assure the best product possible. By no means is this plan good for downstream water users, but it appears to be the best that can be done within the constraints of the current historic drought," said Gertson, who also grows rice near the lower river.
The Lower Colorado River Basin Coalition is made up of a broad, diverse group from lower Travis County to Matagorda Bay representing counties, communities, businesses, private landowners and agriculture, conservation and environmental groups.