The reservoirs Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis are the source of water on which most central Texans depend and which the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) manages. The reservoirs have experienced periods of drought in the past, with the drought of record in the 1950’s being the most severe and prolonged drought in recorded history – until, perhaps, now.
During periods of drought, LCRA relies on its Water Management Plan (WMP), which defines LCRA’s role in managing the reservoirs, to determine how it will allocate water to its customers and to the environment. A fundamental premise is LCRA will manage the reservoirs to ensure that a firm supply of stored water will be available to meet the water supply needs of firm water customers – manufacturers, municipal water supply systems and power generating plants – even during times of drought. When firm water supplies may be threatened as a result of drought, the WMP specifies how LCRA will curtail the availability of interruptible stored water upon which agricultural customers rely for irrigation. The current drought is so severe, however, that in 2012, for the first time in history, and again this year, to ensure the availability of water for its firm customers, LCRA requested emergency relief from the TCEQ to depart from the protocols in the WMP and halt the release of water to downstream rice farmers.
The WMP also describes the actions LCRA must take if it declares that a drought is worse than the drought of record. For LCRA to make this declaration, three triggers must simultaneously occur. The duration of the drought must be over twenty-four months as measured by the last time the reservoirs were full, the cumulative inflow deficit during the current drought must exceed the deficit during the drought of record, and finally, the combined storage of Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan must be less than 600,000 acre-feet. (2010 WMP, page 4-34.) The last time the reservoirs were full was in January 2008, when they contained 2.01 million acre-feet of water. Inflow into the reservoirs is at a record low. The average annual inflow into the reservoirs since 1942 is 802,927 acre-feet. In July, the inflow total for the year was a mere 96,734 acre-feet. The final condition triggering a declaration – that the combined storage of the reservoirs falls below 600,000 acre-feet – has never occurred. Currently, the combined storage is 667,229 acre-feet (only 33% full), and the level is falling approximately 12,000 acre-feet a week. LCRA predicts that without adequate rainfall, the combined storage of the reservoirs will fall below 600,000 acre-feet sometime in October or November.
When this final condition is met, pursuant to the WMP, the LCRA Board will declare that this drought is worse than the drought of record. The result of a declaration is that LCRA will curtail all of its firm water customers’ demands by twenty percent, including environmental flow needs, and cutoff interruptible water supply (which it has already done). The twenty percent curtailment should not come as a shock to firm water customers. Under LCRA’s contract rules, when projections indicate the potential for reaching the trigger for initiation of pro rata curtailment within six months, LCRA notifies its firm water customers and requests that each customer prepare a curtailment plan. (Contract Rules, page 24). In general, the plan includes the measures a customer will use to achieve compliance with the mandatory reductions in water use. (Contract Rules, page 24). This process actually began in the fall of 2011 when the combined storage of the reservoirs was 760,000 acre-feet, and LCRA projected it would fall to 600,000 acre-feet in the spring of 2012. Fortunately, rain in 2012 increased lake levels, and the Board was not forced to order pro rata curtailment. In May of this year, however, with a hot and dry summer looming and the reservoir storage waning, LCRA met with firm water customers again to discuss the status of their curtailment plans.
To implement the curtailment process, LCRA determines a baseline for each firm water customer that is based on water use for a twelve-month period. The twenty percent reduction is taken from this baseline amount, and this number becomes the customer’s new annual allotment. LCRA may adjust this baseline amount if a customer demonstrates that there will be increased demand due to population growth and that through water conservation measures, a real water savings has been realized. (Contract Rules, page 25-26.) The result is that some municipalities, who have implemented aggressive watering restrictions and who are experiencing population growth, may have higher baseline amounts than actual water usage and the curtailment policy may not feel as harsh. For smaller municipalities who may not have the funds to enforce watering restrictions and who face difficulties in complying with a twenty percent reduction, the penalties that LCRA can assess for using more water than the annual allotment are worrisome.
LCRA can charge a customer up to two to ten times the base rate for usage in excess of the annual allotment. The rules do, however, permit the Board to reevaluate the rates to be assessed against a customer for diverting water in excess of its annual allotment. Under the rules, LCRA has the right to cut off water in excess of the annual allotment. (Contract Rules, page 29-30.) A customer may request a temporary variance from the annual allotment of water assigned to it under pro rata curtailment. LCRA may grant a variance if the failure to do so will result in a public health or safety emergency or if it is technically impossible for the customer to comply with its curtailment plan. The variance is temporary, however, and must include a timetable for the customer to achieve compliance with its annual allotment under pro rata curtailment. (Contract Rules, page 30-31.)
When the Board issues a resolution declaring a drought worse than the drought of record, the Board will establish criteria to cancel the declaration. The Board has latitude in determining these standards. The water contract rules provide that the cancellation criteria may be based on the combined storage of the reservoirs increasing to a specified amount or any other criteria the Board determines is appropriate. (Contract Rules, page 28.) The WMP provides further direction, instructing the LCRA Board to cancel a declaration of a drought worse than the drought of record once inflow increases by a certain percentage or once the combined storage of the reservoirs is above a specified threshold level. (WMP, page 4-34.) When the declaration is cancelled, pro rata curtailment for firm water customers ends and interruptible supplies may once again be released.
While under a declaration of a drought worse than the drought of record, LCRA has flexibility to reduce percentage curtailments or to end pro rata curtailment for firm water customers if conditions improve but cancellation of the declaration is not appropriate. (Contract Rules, page 28). LCRA has proposed to end pro rata curtailment for firm water customers if the combined storage of the reservoirs increases to 900,000 acre-feet. If, on the other hand, conditions become worse, LCRA may enact further percentage curtailments. (Contract Rules, page 28). The WMP provides guidance in the event storage levels continue to fall. (WMP, page p-10.) At a recent firm water customer meeting, LCRA discussed with customers how they plan to implement watering restrictions under a thirty percent reduction, which LCRA will mandate if the combined storage of the reservoirs falls to 500,000 acre-feet.
The drought may persist, and our water supply will wane. Things could get worse. But for now, attention is focused on whether the combined storage of Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan will fall to 600,000 acre-feet for the first time in history, triggering a declaration that this drought is worse than the drought of the 1950’s and forcing LCRA’s water customers and in turn, the end user, to reevaluate water use in this new era.