A Texas water supplier voted Tuesday to ask the state to allow it to withhold irrigation water from downstream rice farmers for a third year in a row.
The Lower Colorado River Authority voted 8-7 to require its two key reservoirs near Austin to be filled to 55 percent of their capacity by March before releasing water downstream for rice farmers. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will have the last word on the issue.
The LCRA had required Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis to be 42 percent full if rice farmers were to draw irrigation water from them. Those Highland Lakes didn't reach that threshold in either of the past two years.
The lakes are now at 36 percent of capacity.
If approved by the state, the drought-related emergency plan would require the authority's two key reservoirs near Austin to have 1.1 million acre-feet of water on March 1 before making any water available to farmers, higher than the 850,000 acre-feet threshold used in the past two years.
Each acre-foot is the amount of water needed to flood an acre to a depth of 1 foot. As of Friday the two reservoirs, Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis, held about two-thirds the water required under the proposed plan. The lakes haven't reached the proposed threshold since July 2011.
Texas is one of the largest rice growers in the nation.
The emergency plan also will require Austin and other municipal customers to restrict water use for the first time.
Lakes Buchanan and Travis, collectively called the Highland Lakes, are now at 36 percent of their capacity, and LCRA officials said it would be unlikely that the lake levels will reach the proposed threshold in time to be of benefit to the rice farmers of Colorado, Matagorda and Wharton counties.
The vote came after more than six hours of comment and debate, including impassioned appeals from rice farmers not to deny their crops irrigation for a third year running.
That threshold is too high and unnecessary, said Ronald Gertson, a fifth-generation Wharton County rice farmer. "When I read this recommendation, I came unglued," he said at the board meeting.
A third consecutive year without water from the Highland Lakes could be the last straw for many growers and related businesses. However, the authority says the higher threshold is needed to give the lakes additional time to recover from the drought.
"This is a truly distressing vote for me, but I've got to take the whole (Colorado River) basin into account," LCRA Chairman Tim Timmerman said.
The higher threshold is not enough for some critics. If approved by the state, the higher threshold for water releases from the Highland Lakes dams will mean "Greatly diminished flows again in 2014" into the lower river basin and Matagorda Bay, which depends on freshwater flows to balance the salinity sufficiently for oyster beds and other fisheries, said Myron Hess, manager of Texas water programs for the National Wildlife Federation.
However, an LCRA board vote Tuesday to restrict lawn watering to once weekly in Austin and other municipalities is "a faint silver lining," said Jennifer Walker, water resources coordinator for the Lone Star Chapter Sierra Club.
In the meantime, the LCRA is proceeding with plans for a new Wharton County reservoir to serve the rice farmers and aims to have it ready by 2017.