The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Friday rejected the Lower Colorado River Authority’s proposed new Water Management Plan and said its staff has largely rewritten it, substituting language to include more recent severe drought data with an eye toward keeping more water in the Highland Lakes during extreme drought periods.
The Water Management Plan approval process still is far from settled but the TCEQ decision to essentially rewrite it is regarded as good news by Highland Lakes interests who have seen the Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis reservoirs devastated by the effects of record-low inflows into the lakes in the past four years as well as what they believe has been LCRA’s mismanagement of the water in them.
A TCEQ news release Friday afternoon said that after a nearly year-long review by its staff of the WMP the regulatory is proposing a strategy that includes a drought management regime with more checks and balances that accounts for both extraordinary and less severe droughts and for normal conditions.
TCEQ’s plan is to establish a higher limit on when interruptible water releases would be completely curtailed depending on the severity of drought conditions, the news release said.
“This is the biggie. This is the one we’ve been waiting for,” said Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay in an interview Friday after seeing the TCEQ report. “This will absolutely change their mentality of how they manage the lakes.”
The Water Management Plan is required as a condition of LCRA’s oversight of the water in Lakes Travis and Buchanan, and it specifically sets out the conditions under which water may be provided to interruptible agricultural customers.
Fraser, who is chairman of the Texas Senate’s Natural Resources Committee, has long pushed for LCRA to change its approach to managing the water in the Highland Lakes, to the point of saying the utility should have its operating permit revoked if it does not adhere to its 1988 adjudicated agreement to protect the firm customers’ water.
Firm water customers such as the cities of Austin, Burnet, Marble Falls, Cedar Park, Leander and others pay premium prices to LCRA to ensure having a reliable water supply.
“TCEQ told LCRA it has a legal obligation to protect the health and safety of these million people in Central Texas and an obligation to protect firm customers and only release water for downstream use when they have a true excess,” Fraser said.
The Water Management Plan that LCRA submitted to TCEQ in 2012 was based on modeling from data accumulated from 1940-1998.
During its review of the WMP, the TCEQ staff updated that Water Availability Model (WAM) of naturalized streamflows and extended the WAM period of record from 1940-2013.
Lakes interests have long advocated for the need to include more updated naturalized streamflows information into any new Water Management Plan.
Three of the driest years in the state’s history, 2011-2013, have occurred during the time that was not included in LCRA’s proposed WMP and the effects of the ongoing near-record drought has brought about a “new normal,” they said.
TCEQ also said in its news release that its staff’s proposed strategy includes developing a WMP that is responsive to changing conditions to provide more protection for firm customers.