By Farzad Mashhood


Updated: 10:01 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012

Published: 9:44 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012

The Lower Colorado River Authority’s board of directors approved its historic
water management plan Wednesday, but not before some directors questioned
whether the agency was going too far in limiting water to rice farmers.

Since public discussions of the new plan, approved by a 10-5 vote Wednesday,
began last fall, a sharp divide has emerged between the rice farmers
dependent on that water and residents and business owners who rely on the
Highland Lakes being as full as possible.

The new 83-page plan places stricter guidelines on releasing water to rice
farmers and nearly doubles water reserves for cities and power plants.

“No one got everything they wanted, but I think everyone had a hand in
crafting the plan, and I think in the end we’ve got a very workable plan and
it will solve our problems, at least for the short term,” LCRA board
Chairman Tim Timmerman said.

In discussions leading up to Wednesday’s vote, some board members questioned
how much pressure the new plan would put on rice farmers.

Kathleen White, a board member from Bastrop County, called the new plan “a
shift of managing the lakes not as water reservoirs, but as something toward
constant level lakes.”

However, models show the new plan, compared with the current one, will result
in a 1- to 2-foot decrease in lake levels under average rainfall but a more
substantial increase in minimum lake levels under a drought of record.

“I believe this water management plan is not adaptive enough … and is
too difficult to understand and operate,” said board member John C.
Dickerson III from Matagorda County, who voted against it. “The water
management plan is about managing firm and interruptible water supply and is
not about protecting … recreational water supply on the reservoirs.”

Many audience members in the meeting responded with grumbles after Dickerson’s
comment, and again after J. Scott Arbuckle, another board member from a rice
farming county, proposed an amendment to the plan that would allow more
favorable water allocation to rice farmers.

Arbuckle later replied, “This is very, very serious business to me, and I
don’t appreciate the chatter to my comment.”

However, Scott Spears, a Travis County-based board member, said Arbuckle’s “11th
hour” change, originally emailed to other board members Monday, was “not
fair” to ask of the board.

Board member Rebecca Klein said the amendment, which was voted down 9-6,
contradicts the terms approved by river basin stakeholders after nearly a
year and a half of meetings.

The votes on the final plan and Arbuckle’s amendment were roughly divided
between board members representing downstream rice farming counties and
those representing Travis County, Hill Country counties and electric service
area representatives.

The plan prioritizes firm water users, both by increasing water reserves for
cities and power plants from about 200,000 acre-feet to about 375,000
acre-feet and by capping the annual availability of dammed water for
agricultural users at 273,500 acre-feet of water initially and 249,000
acre-feet by 2020.

This comes after state regulators in December allowed the LCRA to break from
its current policy to cut off water to most rice farmers this year if Lakes
Travis and Buchanan hold less than 850,000 acre-feet of water on March 1. As
of Wednesday, the lakes held 830,000 acre-feet of water.

(An acre-foot equals about 326,00 gallons.)

Residents and business owners on the lakes have criticized the new plan for
releasing too much water to rice farmers and for making changes to an
earlier draft of the plan without involving lakeside stakeholders.

Rice farmers have said the plan, which ends the longtime policy of open
supply, would not only lower their crop yields but decimate a 100-year-old
industry that is the backbone of several Gulf Coast counties.

City of Austin officials, including water utility Director Greg Meszaros, have
endorsed the plan. The plan does not address potential new supplies, which
the LCRA formally committed to with a resolution in Wednesday’s meeting.

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