Posted: Tue, 26 Apr 2011 08:10 AM - 2150 Readers
By: Asher Price
Taking a step toward expanding water supplies in the Colorado River basin, the Lower Colorado River Authority announced Monday it had won a permit from the state to divert nearly as much water each year as Lake Buchanan can contain.
The permit opens the way for the LCRA to build reservoirs in Colorado, Wharton and Matagorda counties with a combined storage a little less than half of Lake Travis' , with the potential for LCRA to invest billions to pipe that water back to Travis County.
photo courtesy of Laura Skelding
The LCRA, which doles out water to Austin, Cedar Park, Pflugerville, Leander and other cities, as well as to power plants in the lower basin, said the move will free up water supplies in lakes Travis and Buchanan.
During heavy rains, the LCRA will divert up to 853,514 acre-feet of water a year downstream of Austin into a series of reservoirs under the terms of the permit, which was issued by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The lower counties experience about twice as much rainfall as the upper ones.
Currently, that water flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Once LCRA impounds the water, it could sell it to new power plants or even pipe it back up to an expanding Austin metropolis. Water now released from the Highland Lakes for use by power plants and rice farmers downriver could then be rediverted to satisfy the dish-washing, lawn-watering, bathing and drinking needs of the seemingly ever-increasing population around greater Austin.
The construction of reservoirs is "going to allow us to be more efficient when we capture water downstream to use those waters and release less water out of the Highland Lakes, and allow us to make better use of those Highland Lakes in the future," said James Kowis , chief water supply strategist for LCRA. "Today we release some of that water downstream for customer needs."
photo courtesy of Jay Janner
Kowis said construction on the reservoirs could be completed in five to 10 years . He said sites and costs for the reservoirs have not been determined. The permit application, submitted in 1999 , had run into opposition from environmental groups, who worried that diverting the water might harm ecosystems in Matagorda Bay, a delicate mix of freshwater from the Colorado and salt water from the Gulf of Mexico that serves as a massive nursery for fish, mussels and other wildlife.
But the environmental groups as well as the South Texas Project Nuclear Operating Company, which has its own rights to Colorado River water, settled differences with LCRA after they successfully added language to the permit that required enough seasonal flow into the bay and in the river to sustain ecosystems before LCRA could divert water.
"The ideal result for Matagorda Bay's health would be for all of the remaining unappropriated water in the Colorado River to flow into the bay, but short of that, this permit contains a number of new approaches aimed at protecting the environment," said Ben Vaughan of the Coastal Conservation Association.
The LCRA also agreed to reduce the rate of diversion, from roughly 80,000 acre-feet per day to 20,000 acre-feet per day , as well as monitor water salinity in the bay.
The permit "appropriately balances environmental needs and water supply needs" Colette Barron Bradsby , a lawyer for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, told environmental quality commissioners at a hearing last week: "Complex water disputes can be resolved with good science, good policy and good-faith efforts of a diverse group of interested parties."
As an accounting measure, the permit is a major increase in the bottom line of water controlled by the state-created utility. The LCRA controls as much as 2.6 million acre-feet of water , with about 600,000 acre-feet available even during a repeat of the worst drought conditions.
An acre-foot is roughly equal to the amount of water three average Austin homes use in a given year.
Reflecting the complexity of bookkeeping involved with water washing in and out of the potential reservoirs over the course of a year, the permit at once allows LCRA to divert up to 853,513 acre-feet of water a year and limits the river authority to building storage for 500,000 acre-feet. When full, by comparison, Lake Travis has the capacity for 1.1 million acre-feet. Lake Buchanan stores nearly a million acre-feet.
The permit further spells out that the river authority can divert up to 327,591 acre-feet for municipal, industrial and agricultural purposes.
Kowis predicts the new permit will yield up to 75,000 acre-feet per year of drought-ready water, the kind of water that cities and power plants rely upon when making water deals. That's still a massive amount of new drought-ready water; Cedar Park, for example, uses about 12,000 acre-feet of water per year, Kowis said.
A 2010 LCRA report estimated the cost to build a pipeline to Travis County for that much water as at least $1.7 billion, or $2,450 per acre-foot of water. An acre-foot of drought-ready water now costs LCRA customers $151 per acre-foot.
Even if 100,000 acre-feet are piped back to Austin or used for industrial customers in the lower basin, that leaves more than 200,000 acre-feet of water for farmers — water that would otherwise be released from the Highland Lakes, to the dismay of homeowners and marina operators.
At bottom, the deal further cements the clout of the river authority, the major player for water and electricity deals in Central Texas.
"The weather in Central Texas can swing wildly from violent rainstorms to prolonged drought," said LCRA general manager Tom Mason. "This new permit will eventually allow LCRA to capture floodwater in the lower basin to use during dry times."