LCRA Water Management Plan in final review at TCEQ

The TCEQ is in the final phase of reviewing the LCRA’s application to amend its Highland Lakes Water Management Plan (WMP).   Stakeholders from all sides of the issues made oral comments and submitted written comments during the month-long comment period that ended last week.

Environmental Stewardship (ES) provided both oral and written comments urging protection of the Colorado River and Madagorda Bay by guaranteeing “essential life support” level environmental flows.  ES also urged the TCEQ and LCRA to take a leadership role in doing the studies necessary to understand why more rain in the contributing watershed for the Highland Lakes has resulted in less inflows.

“Simply stated, rainfall in the watershed is not being converted to inflows to the Highland Lakes.” said Steve Box, Executive Director, in his oral comments.  “Rainfall, therefore, is not the entire problem, nor the ultimate solution to the challenge of managing the Highland Lakes system and the basin.” ES urged the TCEQ and LCRA to jointly provide the leadership necessary to recognize, understand and address the critical issues facing the basin by taking the following steps (see ES 14 page letter documenting its concerns):

  • Investigate rainfall and rainfall trends over the contributing watershed,
  • Investigate land use practices and trends in the contributing watershed,
  • Incorporate groundwater into the water management plan,
  • Incorporate conjunctive management of land, surface water and groundwater into the water management plan, and
  • Guarantee essential environmental flows to the Colorado River Basin and Bay in the water management plan.

“It is necessary and appropriate that the LCRA WMP guarantee essential instream and freshwater inflow needs,” said Box regarding environmental flow needs of the Colorado River and Matagorda Bay.   “Statistically, attainment of essential threshold flow is only at 86% and bay salinity is above the maximum target of 27.5 ppt for 17 consecutive months during a repeat of the drought-of-record.  That’s not 17 months on ‘life support,’  that’s 17 months of torture in Guantanamo for the Matagorda Bay ecosystem.”   “This plan does not meet the objective to provide threshold flows to the bay every month,” said Box.  “We must do better.  Now is the time to do the work necessary to ensure that essential environmental flows are protected in the WMP.”

Environmental Stewardship is especially interested in gaining agreement and support that the WMP guarantee essential safety net environmental flows for the river and bay. 


and include “LCRA WMP” in the subject line of your email.


“As part of the TCEQ’s review of LCRA’s amended water management plan (WMP), TCEQ held a stakeholder meeting to obtain input from Colorado River Basin stakeholders. ,” Deputy Director L’Oreal W. Stepney said “we are specifically seeking comments on the amended application and TCEQ’s report; however, any information is welcome.”

Environmental Stewardship (ES) prepared extensive comments in a letter that was submitted to the agency on January 7, 2015. ES’ comments are based on Water Management and Planing Principles developed by a group of stakeholders in the basin.  Those principles form the foundation of the comments contained in the letter.

The following is part of the opening remarks:  ES will attempt to show, through its letter and input throughout the remaining portion of this review process, that:

A1. External factors have had catastrophic impacts: The current drought has demonstrated that the current water management plan (WMP) has not adequately addressed several external factors[i] that have catastrophically impacted the basin, and, if left unchecked, will sabotage any attempt to meet the WMP’s objectives unless likewise managed.

A2. The extent and severity of this drought is man-made: The drought has demonstrated that, though the lack of rain[ii] has brought us to this condition, the extent and severity of the drought is primarily a man-made phenomenon. This drought is likely worse than the drought-of-record due to man’s management practices and unrealistic expectations[iii] (some of which have been codified in law).

A3. Conjunctive management is needed: Future management practices will, of necessity, need to include conjunctive[iv] management of the land, the surface waters, and the aquifers that intersect the basin.

A4. Environmental flows are essential: Future management practices must guarantee a solid base of environmental flows to meet critical subsistence and threshold flow needs of the river and bay[v]. Environmental flows are essential water demands.


[i] In the upper contributing zone: the impacts of the following on Highland Lake inflows: Lack of brush control, small surface water impoundments, agricultural use of groundwater for irrigation (especially cotton). In the cities: the impacts of over-sizing water treatment and distribution systems such that they cannot be safely operated at reduced/drought flow levels without dropping below residual chlorine standards.

[ii] Rainfall records and trends tend to indicate that rainfall over the contributing zone of the upper basin has been as much as 30% greater during the first six years of the current drought when compared to the same period in the DOR.

[iii] It is not reasonable to expect that water supply will be adequate in drought and severe drought conditions to enable the supply and use of the same amount of water to FIRM customers during drought as these customers receive during wet conditions. There needs to be a means of recognizing and supplying “essential needs” while reducing and/or eliminating non-essential uses. Unfortunately this expectation has been written into the adjudication orders that created the LCRA water management plan and the terms and conditions the LCRA must meet in managing FIRM vs interruptible water.

[iv] conjunctive /kənˈdʒʌŋktɪv/ adjective1.joining; connective 2.joined 3.of or relating to conjunctions or their use 4.(logic) relating to, characterized by, or containing a conjunction noun5.a less common word for conjunction (sense 3) Derived Forms conjunctively,adverb.Word Origin C15: from Late Latin conjunctīvus,from Latin conjungereto conjoin.

[v] Lacking such line-in-the-sand safety-net practices, the Colorado river will, like the Rio Grande and the western Colorado River, cease to flow to its bay and cease to be a sound ecological environment. The lack of freshwater inflows will bring dramatic ecological and economic impacts to the bay system and those who depend on the bay for a livelihood … and on Texas heritage.


LCRA Stakeholder Meeting:

After a month of stakeholder meetings the LCRA Water Management Plan Amendments were approved by the LCRA Board and were sent to Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) for review and approval. Stakeholders made adjustments to the proposed plan that improved environmental flows to the bay during drought conditions and provided improvements in interruptible flows to irrigation interests.   With these improvements, the stakeholders supported moving the plan to TCEQ for final review and approval.  The plan must be approved by TCEQ before it can be implemented.

It isn’t a perfect plan but it’s the best we can do at this point in the process.   Though environmental flows to the bay were improved slightly, Matagorda Bay and its estuaries are still at significant risk during a repeat of the drought of record like we are currently experiencing.  Scientific studies, done during the LCRA-SAWS project, provide a wealth of information on what the river and bay need to stay healthy during drought, dry, and wet periods.  “Threshold” inflows to the bay, the most critical life-support for the bay during drought, are well below attainment levels approved by the TCEQ for the Colorado River and Matagorda Bay.

The LCRA Board, at the same meeting, approved funding for the Lane City Reservoir Project that will construct a 40,000 acre off-channel reservoir in Wharton County.  Though the reservoir will be of great benefit to the Highland Lakes, firm water customers and irrigation interests in the lower basin, it comes at a direct cost to the already stressed bay.  The reservoir is projected to capture as much as 90,000 acre-feet of water per year (filling the reservoir twice) that would otherwise flow into Matagorda Bay. As we proceed with final development of the Highland Lakes Water Management Plan, we will also need to amend the plan to take this new reservoir into consideration and secure the safety net on the bay and estuaries system.

Environmental Stewardship’s concerns:

After meeting with the LCRA staff and reviewing the modeling data, Environmental Stewardship submitted comments, and follow-up comments, to the staff and final comments to the Board that made the following points:

1) The LCRA has made changes to the TCEQ recommended framework that arbitrarily deny water for environmental flows and do not adequately protect Matagorda Bay and estuaries. Though these concerns were reduced, they were not eliminated.

2) The LCRA has added a “caps model” that arbitrarily reduces water provided for environmental flows during critical drought periods while making more water available in “good times”.  Again, these concerns were reduced, but not eliminated. 

3) The LCRA continues to demand surface water for power plant operations even though it has recently obtained permits from the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District for groundwater to supply the Bastrop Power Plant.  The LCRA staff included the groundwater use at the Lost Pines power plant.  This adjustment in the model resulted in increased flows in the lower basin and a 5,000 acre-foot/year increase in the combined storage of the Highland Lakes.   This is a very good and constructive amendment to the plan.