LCRA Treads Water in Dry Times

The LCRA emerged from the 83rd relatively unscathed, but still no one is particularly happy

High and dry at Lake Travis
High and dry at Lake Travis (Photo courtesy of LCRA)

Despite the best efforts of a handful of Highland Lakes-region legislators, the Lower Colorado River Authority emerged from the 2013 regular session of the Leg­is­lature relatively unscathed – no small feat.

The organization charged primarily with the delicate balance of distributing water to a host of central Texas municipalities – including the city of Austin – while also supplying rice farmers in the southeastern portion of the state with two crops' worth of water, had just survived a period when that balance was out of whack. In 2012 and 2013, with the entire area in the grasp of an unforgiving drought, LCRA curtailed downstream agricultural uses of water in favor of its upstream municipal customers. The new water management plan for the Colorado basin, negotiated in 2012, had pitted those parties against each other – and though Highland Lakes residents ended up with a better deal, giving their needs priority status, no one was particularly happy.

No surprise then that regional legislators – including Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay – took aim at the organization. Howard tried to set LCRA up for Sunset review. Watson and Fraser tried to make state law of the notion that downstream rice farmers should be cut off in drought conditions. None of that succeeded. In the absence of new legislative restrictions, the Austin American-Statesman's Asher Price anointed the organization a "winner" for the session.

It all appeared quite rosy.

Then along came Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Executive Director Zak Covar. On June 3, Covar informed LCRA General Manager Becky Motal that he would not submit the 2012 Water Man­age­ment Plan for TCEQ approval just yet; instead, he opted for a review of the plan that could take as long as 10 months. Motal said she welcomed the review in a press release issued by LCRA.

Watson and Fraser were delighted. The pair issued their own press release not long after LCRA had done the same. Fraser took a chunk of the credit for Covar's action: "We could not be more pleased that the TCEQ has considered our request for review of the proposed plan and new modeling today," he said. "For the past two years, the LCRA has had emergency orders that would still be needed if the proposed plan was in place. Clearly this plan is flawed as it does not accomplish the purpose for which it is intended – protecting firm water customers during a repeat of the drought of record."

Watson looked forward to TCEQ's information gathering. "TCEQ's call to further review this critical regional water plan just underscores the concerns that Central Texans have been airing for two years," he said. "In terms of its intensity, this is a historic drought. A water management plan that truly protects the citizens and economy of Central Texas must take these incredibly dry conditions into account. I appreciate that TCEQ will now do their own modeling and collect the data that will drive a sound and protective plan."

Nevertheless, it's not as though the TCEQ is a paragon of environmental consideration. And while the river basin awaits the results of the TCEQ study, LCRA will continue to operate under its 2010 Water Man­age­ment Plan – one that offers more deference to municipal needs over those of rice farmers.

There's also another complication: Just before Covar sent his letter, LCRA's board of directors lost two veteran hands. On May 30, Gov. Rick Perry announced that he had appointed two new directors: Pamela Jo "PJ" Elli­son of Ellison's Greenhouses in Brenham, and veterinarian Robert Lewis of Elgin. Ellison does not appear to have direct donor ties to any of Perry's campaigns – a frequent characteristic of many Perry appointees. Lewis, however, has contributed over $30,000 to Perry state campaigns since 2002.

Ellison and Lewis replace former board chair/current board vice chair Rebecca Klein and current board secretary Kathleen Hartnett White. Klein was pushed aside to make room for Chair Tim Timmerman in January 2011 (thanks to a recent change in rules, Perry appoints the board chair directly). White was a deliberative board member, and voted against the 2012 Water Manage­ment Plan. It remains to be seen if the new board members will have a visible effect on LCRA policy.

All in all, pending the TCEQ review, LCRA still appears – through massive employee departures brought on by major reorganizational efforts on Motal's part, continuing board changes, and despite a clearly frustrated Central Texas legislative delegation – to have escaped for the moment any sort of serious challenge from on high.

The TCEQ will hold a stakeholder meeting about the LCRA's 2012 Water Management Plan on Wednesday, June 26 at 2pm at its headquarters campus, 12100 Park 35 Circle, Building E, Room 201.

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News, LCRA, Donna Howard, Kirk Watson, Troy Fraser, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Becky Motal, Rick Perry, Robert Lewis, Water Management Plan, Tim Timmerman, Zak Covar, Jo Ellison

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