February 2014

Why is LCRA asking for an emergency order from TCEQ?

Without some type of emergency order, the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) would be required to start making releases of water from lakes Buchanan and Travis for downstream rice irrigation. Those releases are called for in the current version of the Water Management Plan (WMP) that governs the water rights for the lakes. Because recent inflows into the lakes have been extremely low—with several recent years having the lowest inflows on record, there is a heightened risk that releasing significant amounts of water for irrigation when lake levels are low could require serious cutbacks of water for cities and industrial plants later this year or next year if inflows into the lakes continue to be well below normal levels. Amending the WMP takes a long time, but an emergency order can be put into effect quickly.  As of February 7, 2014, combined storage levels in lakes Buchanan and Travis totaled about 764,000 acre-feet, which is about 38% of capacity. LCRA has been operating the two lakes under a series of emergency orders—an individual emergency order can last six months—during the last two years. However, LCRA has asked for a very different emergency order this time.

What is the Water Management Plan?

The Water Management Plan (WMP), which was developed by LCRA through a broad stakeholder process and approved by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), serves as an operating plan for use of the water in lakes Buchanan and Travis. The current WMP was submitted by LCRA in 2003 and approved by TCEQ in 2010. As a result, it is out of date, particularly because the firm water demands—primarily water for cities and industries—have increased over the levels assumed in the WMP. That is important because interruptible water demands—primarily water for downstream irrigation—are limited in the WMP to help protect supplies of firm water.

Firm water is water supply that is considered to be reliably available even with a recurrence of historical drought conditions. Interruptible water is not reliably available and is subject to being reduced or even cut off under certain defined circumstances. Customers pay more for firm water than for interruptible water.

To the extent environmental water needs are actually met, they are met primarily by flows arising below the lakes plus interruptible water when it is available and a small commitment of firm water.   Releases made for other downstream uses, such as irrigation, also provide environmental flows benefits.

LCRA has developed an updated version of the WMP, which was again developed through an extensive stakeholder process, but that version is still undergoing review at TCEQ. One of the things TCEQ is doing in that review is factoring in the impact of the recent extremely low inflows to the lakes. Those inflows are lower than the levels used in developing the updated WMP and that new information needs to be taken into account when the updated plan is considered for approval.

What does the emergency order do?

The primary effect of the emergency order is to limit when water is available to meet interruptible demands, referred to as interruptible water, based on the amount of water in storage in the lakes.  It would also limit environmental flows.  Without any emergency order, some interruptible water would continue to be available for release as long as storage levels in the lakes are above 600,000 acre-feet. Under the emergency orders used in 2012 and 2013, no interruptible water was available unless storage levels were above 850,000 acre-feet. Under the current WMP and the previous emergency orders, the amount of interruptible water available increased as the amount of water in storage increased, with the full amount of interruptible water becoming available for irrigation when storage levels got up to 1,400,000 acre-feet.

The new order requested by LCRA would provide that no interruptible water is available unless storage levels reach at least 1,100,000 acre-feet and would continue to limit the amount of interruptible water available even if inflows greatly increased to the point that the lakes were completely full.

How do the lakes affect fish and wildlife in the river and Matagorda Bay?

The vast majority of the Colorado River Basin is located above lakes Buchanan and Travis. Except when the lakes are completely full and spilling, runoff and spring flow from the upper basin can’t make it to the river below Austin or to Matagorda Bay unless it is intentionally passed through the lakes. That is a big change from when all of the flow of the Colorado River was environmental flow.  Flow levels in the river affect water quality and determine the amount of habitat available for fish and other aquatic organisms, which, in turn, serve as a food source for other wildlife. Similarly, the amount of fresh water flowing into Matagorda Bay from the Colorado River and other streams determines conditions in the bay. These freshwater inflows moderate salinities and deliver essential nutrients and sediments to keep the bay healthy. Without adequate inflows, fish and wildlife suffer and so do economically important activities that depend on fish and wildlife such as recreational fishing and hunting, nature tourism, and seafood production.

How would the emergency order affect flows for fish and wildlife?

By reducing the amount of water passed through the lakes and flowing in the Colorado River downstream of Austin and into Matagorda Bay, the emergency order would adversely affect water quality and put at risk fish and wildlife in the river and the bay. As a general rule, water released downstream for any purpose helps improve water quality and increase aquatic habitat in the river. Little firm water is released for use downstream so, particularly in the absence of downstream rainfall, releases of interruptible water are important components of river flow. Any emergency order that reduces water available for interruptible use would result in adverse impacts. However, the new order requested by LCRA would dramatically reduce the amount of water available for the river and the bay even when the lake levels have largely, or even completely, recovered.  That result isn’t justified.

Under the WMP, LCRA has committed a limited amount of firm water to help maintain critical environmental flows. The purpose of critical freshwater inflows is to provide sufficient freshwater to maintain a small area—a sanctuary—of moderate salinity to support some fin fish and shellfish so that they can help repopulate the bay when more normal inflow conditions return. The current WMP indicates that freshwater inflows of 14,260 acre-feet each month are needed to maintain desired salinity levels in the sanctuary area.

The commitment of firm water available to help provide those critical inflows is a total of 5,944 acre-feet for all of 2014. Depending on rainfall in 2014, Matagorda Bay will get inflows that arise below the lakes, so the bay isn’t limited to only 5,944 acre-feet if the emergency order is granted. However, as was seen in 2013, those inflows from below the lakes can be quite low, particularly in the critical hot weather months. The small commitment of firm water was designed to supplement releases of interruptible water that help meet environmental needs. With the requested emergency order, no releases of interruptible water for environmental purposes would be available even if the reservoirs were nearly, or even completely, refilled as a result of upstream rainfall.  Firm or interruptible water is released to provide freshwater inflows only when there are inflows into the lakes available for that purpose.

Isn’t the emergency order needed to protect human water supply?

The National Wildlife Federation and the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club agree that some form of reasonable emergency order should be enacted. Even at current lake levels, there is a large supply of water that can be used to meet firm water demands over an extended period. Those firm water demands can be reduced greatly by limiting non-essential uses like lawn watering designed to keep lawns green even in the midst of a severe drought. A recent Texas Water Development Board study estimated outdoor water use, which is primarily lawn watering, accounted for about 33%, on average, of Austin’s water use.

However, if flows into the lakes remain at record low levels and releases of interruptible water for irrigation purposes are made, firm water deliveries likely would have to be reduced. Even though we believe that non-essential uses of water should be significantly reduced during droughts, we don’t believe that releases of interruptible water should be made unless changing rainfall patterns result in increased lake levels. Our concern is that the emergency order LCRA has requested this time imposes unreasonable conditions.

Why are the National Wildlife Federation and the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club opposing the new emergency order?

Although we support the entry of an emergency order similar to the ones in effect during the last two years, we believe the new emergency order that the TCEQ Commissioners will be considering on February 12 goes too far in cutting off water to the lower Colorado River Basin. The emergency orders in effect the last two years prevented the release of interruptible water when lake storage was below 850,000 acre-feet and, in doing so, prevented the occurrence of any water supply emergencies. An emergency order should be limited to addressing emergency situations. Once lake storage has significantly recovered, the emergency relief should go away. The new emergency order goes too far and cuts off interruptible water for the environment without regard to lake levels, even if the lakes are completely full. That is not justified or fair and it exceeds the appropriate scope for an emergency order.

January 10, 2014

NWF/Sierra Club Press Release
NWF / Sierra Club Comment Letter to TCEQ on LCRA Emergency Order