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RECA Gets a Splash of Cold Water

LCRA proposes aggressive conservation measures for these drought-ridden times

By Katherine Gregor, Fri., Nov. 13, 2009

RECA Gets a Splash of Cold Water

"Needs are not the same as wants" when it comes to water use, warned Tom Mason, general manager of the Lower Colorado River Authority, at a Real Estate Council of Austin luncheon Nov. 4. "You could live without oil, you can live without electricity, but you can't live without water."

Mason described LCRA's current water supply as "possibly worse than any drought of record." While he reassured the crowd of developers and other real estate industry professionals that "we have plenty of water for Central Texas' critical needs," he said watering a St. Augustine lawn in a drought on a 100-degree summer day is not a critical need. "Don't let the revived green lawns and landscapes in Austin fool you," he said. "The reality is, there's not enough water coming into the lakes right now."

Mason warned that the continued drought and long-term water demands require our region to fundamentally change its water-consuming behavior. "Conservation is still incredibly important," he said. "It's the cheapest, easiest, best, fastest way to make our water supplies last longer." He then counseled developers to build water conservation into new projects. LCRA is advocating for a more flexible state water management plan that could allow denial of more water requests, he said; LCRA intends to go to the Texas Com­mis­sion on Environmental Quality to get the state plan changed.

Mason and his staff recently recommended to the LCRA board new strategies – four separate actions – to manage water supplies. Attracting the most attention is a move to temporarily suspend new contracts for LCRA water, including existing requests from new subdivisions, industry, and other developments. Mason noted that the ban would not apply to cities using more water than their contracts currently allow. But despite Mason's call for conservation, another of the four recommendations would give LCRA's blessing to its customers – which include Austin and surrounding cities – to lift their mandatory watering restrictions. Before the recent rainfall, LCRA had requested a 25% reduction in usage for outdoor watering from its customers. The LCRA board discussed all of the revised recommendations and heard public input at a Nov. 10 meeting. Speakers included Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who spoke to the city's commitment to water conservation; he encouraged LCRA to incorporate new lessons from this drought into its future planning, emphasizing that Austin, as its largest ($100 million) customer, is due a secure, long-term water supply. The board is expected to act on the recommendations Nov. 18.

In the Highland Lakes reservoirs that provide Austin's drinking water, said Mason, "We're still 267,000 acre-feet below where we'd be if we just repeated the historic drought of record." That benchmark, from 1947 to 1957, was used as a worst-case scenario in crafting the existing 1999 state water management plan. During that 10-year period, Mason said, "it almost stopped raining." Texas had a population of about 7.7 million in that era, he noted; now it has a population of about 24 million. Mason believes we may now have a worse situation than the worst-case scenario.

Mason reassured RECA members twice that LCRA's water supply is "adequate not to limit growth or development." But "in the water supply business, you want to be extremely conservative," he warned. LCRA is circulating a draft of its Water Supply Resource Plan, which looks out to the year 2100 and emphasizes conservation in forecasting a possible water shortage.

One interesting possibility Mason raised: The water shortage could become Texas' best tool for halting coal plants. Among the pending water contract requests that would go on hold, if staff recommendations get board approval, is a request from White Stallion Energy Co. to build a new coal plant in Matagorda County. The project – one of a dozen new coal plants in progress in Texas – is opposed by a slate of environmental groups as well as the Texas Medical Association and the American Lung Association. White Stal­lion's application, as posted at www.nocoalcoalition.org, includes a request to remove up to 35,706 acre-feet of water from the Colorado River annually.

LCRA is in the coal-fueled energy business too, of course. Water provides only about 7% of LCRA's revenues, said Mason – if nearly all of the fights – while the other 93% comes from electricity sales. LCRA provides wholesale electricity to 1.1 million people in 42 cities and 55 counties (but not Austin). Current­ly, about half of LCRA's power is generated from coal (it owns two thirds of the Fayette Power Project; the other third is owned by Austin Energy).

In Central Texas, water is power, in more ways than one. "We have to have a comprehensive water plan," said Mason. "We're all in this together."

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