CENTRAL TEXAS (KXAN) — Some Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) customers will have to pay more for their water but some believe it’s not enough.

Wednesday, the LCRA Board of Directors approved to increase water rates for interruptible customers in the Lakeside, Gulf Coast and Garwood divisions with water rates ranging between $46 to $69 per acre-foot. That’s enough water to cover a football field one foot deep.

However, those with the nonprofit Central Texas Water Coalition (CTWC) say they have some concerns on how the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) determines its water rates.

Source: (LCRA)

There are two types of customers the LCRA serves — firm and interruptible. Firm customers consist of cities, industries and businesses. While interruptible customers consist of agricultural customers – for example, rice farmers downstream.

Back in October, the LCRA board approved the first water rate increase in five years for firm customers going up $10 from $145 to $155 per acre-foot or 325,851 gallons. However, agricultural customers, such as the rice farmers downstream, pay less than half that rate for the same amount of water.

(Source: LCRA)

The LCRA said the reason for the lower cost for the agricultural customers is because they are interruptible customers which means their water can be curtailed or cut off during a drought; and depending on the severity of the drought these customers could go months, even years, without water.

A news release from CTWC reads — “Currently, some interruptible customers, primarily Gulf Coast and Lakeside rice farmers who use the water to flood fields for weed control, pay just $66.14 per acre-foot. The LCRA justifies this pricing disparity because downstream irrigators’ water supply could theoretically be cut off, though the LCRA’s own modeling suggests this is unlikely to happen.”

Those at the LCRA said it can and does happen, pointing to 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 when they had to cut back and at times not release water downstream to farmers due to the drought conditions.

Data from the LCRA shows in 2020, the Highland Lakes supplied 370,595 acre-feet of water for all uses. Firm customers accounted for 170,537 acre-feet, including 175 acre-feet to meet emergency needs for electricity or about 46% of all water used from the Highland Lakes. Interruptible customers used 84,472 acre-feet or about 23% of all water used from the Highland Lakes.

Water agency officials also explained the price breakdown for the interruptible customers stating that the ag customers pay for their portion of river management and water delivery service. They also added that the proposed rates cover LCRA’s costs it incurs throughout the process. However, those at the nonprofit are not convinced that is the case and fear the agency could be losing out on additional funds that could be used to determine and research future resources.

Those with the nonprofit Central Texas Water Coalition remain worried about the lower prices not encouraging conservation. They say this is just one of the several concerns including how it could impact the future of the water supply for Central Texas especially as the area continues to grow.

“All you need to do is look around and see all the new development from Austin to Liberty Hill to Lampasas and places south and you can see what that population is doing and all of those people need drinking more and it will have to come from somewhere,” said nonprofit volunteer and member Jim Maury.

Those at the water agency say they are continuously working on developing new water resources for the future.

“We know better than anybody about the population growth that’s occurring in our area and that we’re going to continue to see in the coming decades,” explained John Hofmann, LCRA executive vice president of water. “That’s one of the reasons we work so hard with y’all to try to develop these long-term water supplies. The provision of water, the interruptible water, that we have in 2022 does not jeopardize those long-term supplies.”

They addressed that issue and several others during the Water Operations Committee Meeting on Tuesday. LCRA representatives stated they had received around 150 comments with many sharing similar concerns to those of the nonprofit.

Watch: Water agency officials’ respond to community comments

Posted below is the full Central Texas Water Coalition news release:

A Central Texas water group is urging public action in advance of a Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) meeting Jan. 19, 2022, in which updated water pricing and policies for downstream irrigators will be considered. The Central Texas Water Coalition (CTWC) says the LCRA’s water pricing for these irrigators, currently less than half what municipal and business users pay, is putting the region’s future water supply in peril, and the Jan. 19 vote could be a turning point. The LCRA manages the lower Colorado River, including the Highland Lakes, which serves as the primary source of water for Central Texas.

In October 2021, the LCRA voted to increase rates for firm customers, meaning municipal and business users, from $145 to $155 per acre-foot (or 325,851 gallons). Currently, some interruptible customers, primarily Gulf Coast and Lakeside rice farmers who use the water to flood fields for weed control, pay just $66.14 per acre-foot. The LCRA justifies this pricing disparity because downstream irrigators’ water supply could theoretically be cut off, though the LCRA’s own modeling suggests this is unlikely to happen.
“Central Texas’ water supply is decreasing, and right now massive amounts of that water are being sold downstream at rates that encourage waste,” said Jo Karr Tedder, president of CTWC. “Flooding rice fields might make sense in places that naturally flood, but in a drought-prone region like Central Texas, we need to take better care of our limited water resources.”

According to state law, the LCRA is required to charge “reasonable and nondiscriminatory” rates that are “sufficient to produce revenues adequate” to cover expenses. However, not only do interruptible users pay significantly less than firm users for the same water, but the rates that the LCRA charges downstream irrigators do not fully cover the costs of providing the water. According to the LCRA, the agency spends $69.65 per acre-foot on staff, equipment, and other costs associated with delivering water to irrigators.
“Why did the LCRA raise prices for governments and industrial users when rice farmers aren’t even paying the full cost of water delivery?” Tedder asked. “This doesn’t make sense and conflicts with state laws that govern water pricing.”

The CTWC believes more needs to be done to protect Central Texas’ limited water supply. According to current water policies, the LCRA could have released over 95 billion gallons of water to downstream irrigators for weed control in 2021. In the past, this policy has contributed to lake levels plummeting to a fraction of their capacity, as happened in 2013 when Lakes Buchanan and Travis’ combined levels sat at 38% of capacity during an historic drought. As a result, lake-area businesses closed, jobs disappeared, and the region’s economy suffered.

Historically, while these mass releases of water may have caused short-term problems for Central Texas residents and businesses, the lakes were all but guaranteed to refill themselves within a few months. However, the CTWC says that this is no longer the case and practices such as flooding fields for weed control is increasingly unsustainable due to major shifts in the Central Texas region.

Key among those factors is the shifting of the U.S. drought line, which divides the United States into the arid West and the wetter East. The line has been moving steadily eastward and now includes Central Texas.

As a result, inflows into the Highland Lakes from the upper Colorado River have declined precipitously. This past November, inflows were just 21% of the historic November inflow average dating back to 1942. Even compared to the historic “super drought” of 2008-2015, November 2021 inflows were about half (55%) of those years’ numbers.

Additionally, the population of Central Texas has grown quickly, and that growth is expected to accelerate. Projections show that the Central Texas region could add another 1 million residents by 2030, adding enormous strain to the Highland Lakes.

“Our water supply cannot be governed by policies and pricing that lead to waste, not conservation,” said Tedder. “As Central Texas gets drier and the population continues to expand, these policies will no longer work and must be changed. If we want to ensure we have adequate water for the future, the time to act is now.”

The CTWC urges the public to ask the LCRA not to approve interruptible customer contracts that do not cover the full costs of the water and to price water to irrigators at rates that encourage conservation not waste.

The LCRA Board will vote on these issues at their January 19 Board Meeting.