The TCEQ reached a somewhat surprising decision in the emergency request by the Lower Colorado River Authority seeking to withhold water from downstream users, including many rice farmers, unless the Highland Lakes near Austin reached 1.1 million acre feet. Instead of adopting a certain trigger point at which water can be released, the TCEQ decided that it was best to prevent the release of irrigation water for now, but to revisit the issue in the next few months. [Read articles here and here.]
For rice farmers, this perhaps offers a glimmer of hope, albeit remote, but the fact remains that they will not be receiving irrigation water for the third year in a row at least at this point. By refusing to set a specific trigger level, the TCEQ’s decision leaves open the possibility of resuming releases in the future if the drought lessens and the Commission believes that there is an adequate supply to do so. Because there is no set trigger point, the Commission will determine whether water should be released at a later date. The current order prohibiting release will be in effect for 120 days.
This has been an ongoing and bitter dispute pitting Texas agriculture and downstream communities against urban communities like Austin who use the water from the lakes. As you may remember from this prior blog, The Lower Colorado River Authority requested that the TCEQ approve a trigger of 1.1 million acre feet be met in order to release any water to downstream users. The previous trigger level was only 850,000 acre feet, and even that had not been met for the last two years resulting in water to downstream farmers being cut off. Upon receiving the emergency request from the LCRA, the TCEQ referred the request to a state administrative law judge who was instructed to hold a hearing to allow for input from stakeholders and make a recommendation to the TCEQ. The recommendation made by administrative law judges William Newhurch and Travis Vickery was to impose an even more stringent trigger that would require 1.4 million acre feet of water before release. Even the LCRA opposed this recommendation and stated that it believed that the 1.1 million acre-foot limit was sufficient to protect the upstream interests.