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AUSTIN, September 11, 2013—UPDATE: In a meeting held yesterday, the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) Board voted to honor, during the month of September, its commitment to pass-through a portion of inflows to the Highland Lakes to help maintain the health of Matagorda Bay. The Board also voted to seek emergency relief from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to reduce or suspend those obligations for the remainder of the year. Under its Water Management Plan, LCRA had previously committed to allow a small amount of water—critical inflows—to flow through the lakes and down to the coast in order to maintain a fishery sanctuary area in Matagorda Bay during drought conditions.
Freshwater inflows to the bay provide essential nutrients and sediments and moderate salinity conditions needed to support fish and wildlife along with the seafood businesses and hunting, fishing, and nature tourism activities that depend on them.
Under the terms of the Water Management Plan, LCRA’s commitments to allow larger amounts of inflows to pass through the lakes in order to maintain good conditions in the Colorado River and overall bay system were suspended much earlier in the drought. More recently, interruptible water for rice farming was cut off. Now, after making the required releases in September, LCRA will seek permission to reduce or end even the commitment to provide critical inflows for the bay. The details of that request are to be determined by the LCRA Board next week .
“It is important to recognize that the Matagorda Bay estuary system basically is on life support at these critical levels of inflow. As the Water Management Plan acknowledges, the critical level of freshwater inflows is designed only to provide a sanctuary area near the mouth of the river where organisms can persist during severe drought conditions so they will be available to repopulate the larger bay when better rainfall conditions return,” explained Myron Hess, who manages Texas Water Programs for the National Wildlife Federation.
“We are pleased that the LCRA Board decided to honor its immediate commitment, but are concerned that the decision to seek emergency relief for the remainder of the year could put the future well-being of Matagorda Bay and the communities and businesses that depend on it at undue risk,” noted Jennifer Walker, Water Resources Coordinator with the Sierra Club, Lone Star Chapter. She added, “we certainly acknowledge that the area is experiencing an extreme drought, but we are not yet facing an emergency situation that justifies putting the long-term health of the estuary system and the local economies that depend on it at such high risk. We will be following the details of that decision carefully.”
Hess noted that, “there often is a tendency to oversimplify and characterize situations like this as critters versus people. We are a long way from that. The amount of water that the Water Management Plan requires to be released for Matagorda Bay is very small compared to the amount that is regularly being applied to lawns to keep them green. In addition, many people’s livelihoods depend on a healthy and productive bay system.”
The LCRA Water Management Plan contains triggers for different management scenarios based on the combined storage of Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis. If the combined storage is below 1.1 million acre-feet, LCRA manages water contributions to Matagorda Bay under a “critical” management scenario. According to the Water Management Plan, during an average year Matagorda Bay, which is the second largest estuary on the Texas Gulf Coast, gets 1.8 million acre-feet of inflow from the Colorado River.
During critical conditions, the Management Plan calls for Matagorda Bay to receive at least 14,260 acre-feet of inflow per month if that amount of river flow is available. If enough rainfall occurs below the lakes to provide the needed inflows during a month, no water has to be passed through the lakes. If downstream flows are not adequate during a particular month, LCRA is required to pass any inflows through the lakes in order to make up the deficit.
“We need to steward our precious water supplies carefully all of the time and especially during a severe drought like the one that we are confronting today. Although the time may soon come, if drought conditions persist, when other types of water use, beyond interruptible water for rice farming and higher levels of flows for river and bay health, are required to be reduced and that includes life-support flows for the bay, that time has not yet arrived,” added Hess. “Even so, given the opportunity, we will work with LCRA to find a reasonable path forward.”
“This is a severe drought and the entire region is suffering. With that in mind we need to ensure that we provide water for both people and the environment. While we appreciate the LCRA Board’s action to provide water to Matagorda Bay this month, we are very concerned about their decision to seek emergency relief from TCEQ for providing freshwater inflows to Matagorda Bay during coming months. This action could unnecessarily compromise the future health of Matagorda Bay,” concluded Jennifer Walker.
BAY CITY, September 10, 2013—Late Sunday night, the Bay City Chamber of Commerce received word that the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) had scheduled a meeting for this morning, at 10:00 a.m., to discuss the possibility of eliminating freshwater inflows into area bays and estuaries. On Monday night, the Chamber discovered the LCRA had called a Board Meeting for 1:00 p.m. today, to take action on the item and seek permission from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to stop the freshwater inflow.
Bay City Chamber of Commerce Mitch Thames headed to Austin to attend the meeting, and protest the act. Thames expressed his astonishment that the Board would even consider such a move, given the extremely negative ecological and economical impact the measure would have.
“I know I sound like I can’t believe it’s happening, and I can’t!” said Thames. “You know, it was one thing when they called for the elimination of water for ‘interruptible’ customers…This is a whole different classification. There are state laws that require freshwater inflows.”
KKHA’s Allen spoke with Thames about the measure and what it would mean to Bay City and surrounding areas. Click below for more.
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