One of the worst droughts in modern history caused the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) to propose two consecutive years of an emergency water plan that, once approved by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), left Texas rice growers in a three-county coastal region without adequate irrigation water to sustain their entire rice crops, forcing most farmers to limit rice acres and scramble to plant alternative crops, like cotton or sorghum.
But LCRA's recent contract award to CH2M Hill, a global full-service consulting, design, and construction firm, that will result in the construction of a new reservoir project near Lane City, Texas, may be the first step in a long process to bring irrigation relief to troubled agricultural water customers.
The $206 million project, being tagged as the Lower Basin Reservoir Project, will provide an approximate 40,000 acre-foot, off channel reservoir that covers over 1,000 acres and with an earthen berm roughly 40 feet in height. Once complete, LCRA says the reservoir should provide an additional 90,000 acre-feet of water a year to LCRA’s water supply system.
LCRA recently awarded the contract for preliminary engineering support, part of the first phase of the project which calls for $18 million to include purchasing the property and for engineering and permitting services. Scheduled final completion for the project is set for July 2017.
The water crisis in Texas is the direct result of two straight years of a devastating drought that taxed nearly all of the state's water resources. Particularly hard hit were the reservoirs of Central Texas, better known as the Highland Lakes, including Lake Buchanan, Lake Travis and Lake LBJ near Austin. In addition to historically low lake levels as a result of rain shortages, increased demand for water from the ever-growing City of Austin and other municipal and industrial users compounded the problem.
While the drought has adversely affected all stakeholders along the Colorado River waterway, farmers in Wharton, Colorado and Matagorda counties were particularly hard hit. Rice growers have long been one of the most senior water users on the waterway and were instrumental in convincing the Texas Legislature to construct the lake projects many years ago. Over the last two years, many of these same farm families have estimated they cut back rice acres by as much as 50 to 60 percent as Colorado River water allotments were drastically reduced to ensure an adequate water supply for all of LCRA’s growing number of users.
When rains faltered, tempers flared
“We cannot ration and restrict our way to a bigger and better Texas. Solutions need to be focused on water for all needs and not restrictions for something as vital as food,” said Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples after the second year of irrigation rationing was announced earlier this year. “A crisis exists in Texas as our water capacity has failed to keep up with our growth. This situation has been compounded by the worst single-year drought on record. We must find a balanced solution that allows farmers to continue producing food to feed us while also providing communities with the water to sustain our families."
Indeed, LCRA's Board of Directors has been bombarded with an emotional response from multiple directions over recent and current water concerns and shortages. Property owners surrounding the three Highland Lakes have argued historically low lake levels have devalued their property and reduced their ability to operate boats and enjoy recreational activities provided by the reservoirs. City of Austin officials have complained that unless more water is made available, they run the risk of failing to meet residential and commercial demand for water.
Even industries located along and dependent on the river, other than agriculture, have expressed concern that water curtailment may affect their operations.
The solution is a return of normal rains, but LCRA officials say even when the rain comes, the problem of water shortages will remain as the state grows and demand on resources, like water, continues to rise.
“This ongoing drought has highlighted the need for bold and decisive action to ensure that LCRA’s customers have a reliable supply of water in the future,” said Board Chairman Tim Timmerman earlier this year. “This new reservoir would help serve the entire basin’s needs for generations."
The Lane City Project is just one of many the Board has approved to make more water available along the Colorado River corridor. LCRA is also pursuing an agreement to purchase a 34,000-acre site owned by Alcoa Inc., near Rockdale. The Alcoa property has significant surface water rights and is situated atop a prolific groundwater aquifer. On Sept. 5, 2012, LCRA General Manager Becky Motal signed a purchase agreement with Alcoa, and LCRA began a due diligence period of at least six months to determine if the sale will be completed. On Feb. 20, 2013, LCRA’s Board approved extending the due diligence period until May 31, pending Alcoa’s approval of the extension.
In addition, LCRA is moving ahead with a potential groundwater project in Bastrop County to meet the Board of Directors’ historic goal of adding 100,000 acre-feet of new water supply by 2017.
Lane City reservoir is the first step
“This is a historic project on many levels,” Motal said. “Not only would it be the first major reservoir built in the basin in four decades, but it’s the first project in our history that would allow us to store significant amounts of water downstream that could be used by multiple customers. That’s vitally important to serving the needs of our downstream industrial and agricultural customers, meeting environmental flow requirements and taking pressure off the Highland Lakes.”
Currently, most of the water that enters the river downstream of the Highland Lakes flows to Matagorda Bay unless customers withdraw it from the river for immediate use. There is no way to capture and store those flows for future use, so during dry periods downstream customers often need to call on water from the Highland Lakes. Last year, for instance, more than 800,000 acre-feet of water flowed down the river into Matagorda Bay.
The reservoir would be built to hold about 40,000 acre-feet of water, but could be filled multiple times over a year by capturing water flowing in the river, making it capable of adding 90,000 acre-feet of firm water to the region’s supply. Firm water is water that can be counted on during a repeat of the conditions during the worst drought on record, the decade-long drought from 1947-1957.
LCRA studied several potential sites and other options before recommending the Lane City site for the first of three possible downstream reservoirs. All the sites studied are suitable, but the Lane City site requires the least amount of infrastructure relocations and is the most cost effective. The other sites studied are in Colorado and Matagorda counties.
LCRA officials say the new reservoir, combined with groundwater permit requests for up to 10,000 acre-feet of water a year now before the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District, would benefit users throughout the basin by meeting LCRA’s goal of adding 100,000 acre-feet of water supply; reducing demands for water from the Highland Lakes;
improve agricultural water reliability and efficiency; and reduce the risk of curtailing water for cities, industry and other firm-water customers.