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Kayak fishers in east Matagorda Bay. PHOTO by ANDREW POTH VIA THE TEXAS TRIBUNE

Kayak fishers in east Matagorda Bay. PHOTO by ANDREW POTH VIA THE TEXAS TRIBUNE

by NEENA SATIJA

As the Highland Lakes that supply Austin’s water continue to dwindle, the Lower Colorado River Authority may take the unprecedented step of cutting off freshwater flows it normally releases from the lakes into Matagorda Bay.

Facing an increasingly desperate need for water to supply cities like Austin, the LCRA is considering whether to ask permission from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to cut off the freshwater flows, sometimes known as “environmental flows,” that are usually required by the state to maintain the ecological health of water bodies farther downstream that the Colorado River empties into, namely Matagorda Bay. Board members will decide whether to ask permission for the cutoff in a meeting Wednesday morning.

The fact that the authority is considering such a move has prompted criticism from environmental advocates and some state and local officials. They worry that stopping the environmental flows could cripple wildlife and the fishing industry in Matagorda Bay — long considered a jewel of the Texas Gulf Coast — while Austinites are allowed to water their lawns without any new restrictions.

“All counties up and down the whole Colorado basin, we’re all in this drought together,” said Kent Pollard, a Matagorda County commissioner. “It certainly seems very unfair in my viewpoint for us, in this one area, to suffer any more economically than any of the other locations.”

Matagorda Bay is one of Texas’ largest estuaries, transitional water bodies between the river and open sea. (The Colorado River feeds into the bay, which is connected to the Gulf of Mexico and ultimately the Carribean Sea.) Pollard said it is home to the largest shrimping fleet on the state’s Gulf Coast. Fish in the bay need freshwater to survive. Salt levels in the water have grown as a result of cuts the LCRA has already made to freshwater releases from the Highland Lakes, and area officials say oystering and shrimping have suffered.

If inflows to the bay are cut entirely for the rest of the year, as LCRA is considering, the water’s salinity would rise higher, and the results could be dire, said Jennifer Walker, water resources coordinator for the Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter.

“The bay has been on critical life support for a long time, and it’s about to be taken off,” she said.

Meanwhile, Walker and Matagorda-area officials say, there have been no new efforts to encourage conservation among Highland Lakes users, such as the city of Austin.

“You’ve got Austinites continuing to fill up their pools, continuing to water their lawns, continuing to do pretty much everything they want to with the water supply,” said Mitch Thames, president of the Bay City Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture.

Austin has been under Stage 2 watering restrictions since September 2012, meaning that businesses and residents can water their lawns once a week in the early morning or nighttime hours.

Still, Lakes Travis and Buchanan are reaching near-historic lows. As of Tuesday morning, the two reservoirs combined were only 32 percent full. The lakes continue to lose about 2,000 to 3,000 acre-feet of water per day, about 0.5 percent of their current combined level of 643,000 acre-feet. If they fall to 600,000 acre-feet, which the LCRA expects will happen in October, more cutbacks will be necessary from its users.

Austin pays a premium for its guaranteed right to water from the Highland Lakes and has reduced its water demand despite major population growth. Some, including state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, say Austinites should not be asked to conserve more. Fraser said he hopes the LCRA will ask TCEQ for permission to end environmental flows to Matagorda Bay for the remainder of 2013.

“Is the water to the critters more important than health and public safety?” Fraser asked.

But even if the LCRA gets permission to end flows to Matagorda Bay for the rest of 2013, the water problems would remain. Cutting the flow would only save about 6,000 acre-feet — less than 5 percent of the amount of water Austin would use in one year. The authority already cut off water from the Highland Lakes to rice farmers for the second year in a row, and few other water-saving options remain. In desperation, the LCRA has floated such controversial proposals as lowering Lake Austin, which is usually kept at a constant level, to use it as a catch basin for rainwater. The idea was quickly tabled after public outcry.

Pollard, the Matagorda County commissioner, has his own proposal.

“It may be a time when they just say, ‘Hey, sorry, you can’t water your lawn,’ and actually completely cut it off,” he said. “I can guarantee you that [Austinites] use way more water in their lawn than what is being sent down to us.”

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NEENA SATIJA reports for The Texas Tribune where this story was originally published. It is made available here through a news partnership between the Texas Tribune and the San Marcos Mercury.

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2 thoughts on “As Austin’s lakes dwindle, gulf coast may also suffer

  1. It would be interesting to run the numbers to see what volume of water could be freed up for environmental flows in the Colorado if:

    — All water systems drawing water from the Colorado River were to disallow any landscape irrigation (except of course by water from rainwater harvesting systems).
    — All reclaimed water systems that would otherwise discharge that water into the river were to shut down the portion of supply that serves landscape irrigation and discharge that volume instead.
    — All the “land dumping” of wastewater (TLAP systems) where the water supply originates from the Colorado River were to instead use that “waste” water to defray irrigation demands on the lots in the developments served by the TLAP systems, thus lowering the amount of water withdrawn.

    It would be good to get a quantitative handle on just how warped our priorities are. It’s all connected, part of one water cycle. Maybe time we started acting like it and prioritizing the use. In that regard, it would be good if Mr. Fraser were living in the real world. Landscape irrigation is not critical to “health and safety”, just desires and vanity. The health of Matagorda Bay, on the other hand, is very much about the health and safety of a whole lot of people, not just “the critters”. Not man apart, Mr. Fraser. That’s the reality.

  2. There’s no good reason why Austin residents need to use more water per person than San Antonio residents – but they do. Way more. I remember reading in the Statesman last year that the properties of Lance Armstrong and a female Austin lawyer were using amounts of water that could otherwise service a small city, and that total “leakage” from the Austin water delivery pipes is enormous. I believe it is time to tear up the St. Augustine & Bermuda lawns and replace them with ground cover that needs little water. I believe that no Austin builder should be allowed to install new Bermuda or St. Augustine lawns. And Troy Fraser has it wrong.

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