Sunset review releases executive summary report on water usage

 

The Sunset Advisory Committee has released its executive summary from its sunset review of the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA)

Project Manager Erick Fajardo released the review for the counties to take a close look at to see where the committee is headed for its recommendations to the legislature this coming session.

Bay City Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture President Mitch Thames said he has seen the summary.

“I’m withholding any judgment over it at this time,” Thames said. “I do feel comfortable with what the sunset committee has done with it so far.”

The summary states “While historic flooding in the lower Colorado River basin occurred at the end of this review, the vast majority of input received during the review concerned the drought and its effect on water availability. Sunset staff also examined LCRA’s efforts to conserve and protect public and private lands in the basin and to regulate water quality and safety along the Highland Lakes.

“To be fair, water conflicts between the municipalities and water utilities of LCRA’s upper basin and the environmental and agricultural groups of its lower basin often align with divisions between growing urban areas and rural, agricultural interests that also occur across Texas and the country. The competitive, high-stakes nature of both the power business and water rights also play out in the continual cycle of threatened and actual litigation, in which LCRA alternates as the defendant and the plaintiff.

“However, these recurring conflicts are not justification for LCRA to hunker down and limit engagement. The region needs LCRA to succeed as a water supplier, and LCRA’s success hinges on its ability to improve public trust. Transparency encourages honesty, openness, and accountability in government actions, and LCRA must do more than the bare minimum to obtain and retain public trust.”

 “One of the biggest issues that we will be fighting is the beneficial use of the water,” Thames said. “The battle is on again and all of this area needs to be aware of it.”

Groups such as the Central Texas Water Coalition, a well-funded organization, is lobbying for the authority to conserve Colorado River water in the lakes in its region for its recreation and real estate interests. 

The two lakes in the organization’s region are Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan. These two water supply lakes fluctuate in elevation, which are normally dictated by periods of drought or periods of rain. 

The first issue the summary pointed out was the demand for water from the LCRA.

The summary states “despite growing water supply needs, LCRA has not developed a formal, proactive strategy for engaging communities in its activities, and its approach to public engagement is inconsistent and often reactive. In addition, LCRA’s lack of budget transparency has led to incorrect conclusions and unwarranted distrust from stakeholders, particularly with respect to water funding. Finally, several LCRA board practices — such as restrictions on public testimony — could unnecessarily limit opportunities for and discourage public engagement.”

Key recommendations include: Require LCRA to adopt a public engagement policy for water supply projects; direct LCRA to provide more detailed financial information in its publicly available documents and direct LCRA to provide more transparent, consistent, and accurate agenda meeting notices. 

A second issue brought up in the summary is the LCRA needs to clarify its relationship with the Colorado River Land Trust to better manage expectations and promote independence.

Thames said this battle is far from over.

“We have been in battle with the LCRA with them to gain our fair share of the water,” Thames said. “We need to make sure we have enough support in the lower basin to testify in session to exclude recreation from a beneficial use of the water. Some areas in Austin believe the LCRA is wasting our water by sending it downstream to the lower basin. 

“Our goal is to communicate a message to keep the river flowing at all times, both in flood times and in drought times,” Thames said. “We just want the LCRA to be fair with the water flow. If we are in a drought, share the pain with all of the areas and not just one area.”

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