On Dec. 10, 2013, LCRA sent a request for emergency drought relief to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). If approved, the relief would cut off Highland Lakes water for most downstream farmers in 2014 unless the combined storage of lakes Travis and Buchanan improves significantly before March 1, 2014.
TCEQ is expected to consider the request in early 2014. If approved, LCRA would withhold Highland Lakes water from the Lakeside, Gulf Coast and Pierce Ranch irrigation operations in 2014 if the combined storage of lakes Travis and Buchanan is less than 1.1 million acre-feet (about 55 percent of capacity) at 11:59 p.m. on March 1. Combined storage on Dec. 10 was about 752,000 acre-feet (37 percent of capacity).
If TCEQ approves the request and combined storage is less than 1.1 million acre-feet on March 1, it would be the third consecutive year the ongoing drought prompted LCRA to cut off Highland Lakes water to most farmers downstream of the Highland Lakes in Matagorda, Colorado and Wharton counties. The Garwood Irrigation Division would be entitled to a limited amount of water, as it was in 2012 and 2013, because of terms in LCRA's purchase agreement of the Garwood water right.
LCRA's Board of Directors voted 8 to 7 on Nov. 19, 2013, to request the emergency drought relief after listening to more than two hours of sometimes-emotional comments from the public (watch a video of the Nov. 19 meeting).
The 1.1 million acre-foot trigger for curtailment is higher than emergency triggers in 2012 and 2013, when the March 1 threshold was set at 850,000 acre-feet. Combined storage on March 1 was below that amount in both years, and Highland Lakes water was cut off to most downstream farmers both years.
The trigger was set at 1.1 million acre-feet for the 2014 irrigation season because, even with water being cut off to most farmers for two consecutive years, the lakes have failed to significantly recover. They remain near historic lows.
Lakes Travis and Buchanan are the region's major reservoirs and provide water for more than a million Central Texans and businesses, industries and the environment throughout the lower Colorado River basin. Only inflows produced by rain, or rain falling directly on the lakes, can fill the lakes. Inflows from the region's rivers and creeks have been at or near record-low levels during this prolonged drought.
Under the emergency relief approved by the LCRA Board and being considered by TCEQ, if combined storage is equal to or greater than 1.1 million acre-feet on March 1, about 130,000 acre-feet of Highland Lakes water would be available to the four irrigation operations. For every 100,000 acre-feet of combined storage greater than 1.1 million, the amount available to farmers would increase by 24,000 acre-feet. This would be limited to a maximum of about 202,000 acre-feet available to farmers if combined storage is 1.4 million acre-feet or more on March 1.
Water available to farmers is measured downstream of the Highland Lakes, where it is diverted from the river by the irrigation operations in Matagorda, Wharton and Colorado counties. Approximately 20 percent more would need to be sent from the Highland Lakes to make up for losses as the water travels downstream.
On Nov. 19, the Board also voted to require firm customers such as cities to implement maximum once-a-week watering schedules if combined storage is less than 1.1 million acre-feet on March 1 and LCRA has cut off Highland Lakes water to most downstream farmers. LCRA provides wholesale water to many cities and communities in Central Texas, including the City of Austin. Some Central Texas cities already limit watering to a maximum of once a week, but LCRA would require all customers to do so if the lakes' combined storage remains below 1.1 million acre-feet and water to farmers is curtailed. In addition, LCRA encourages all home and business owners to stop watering lawns from November to February. LCRA domestic-use customers – who pay to take water directly from the Highland Lakes for their lawns – are already required to turn off their irrigation systems during those months.