- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 22, 2014

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - When it comes to water planning, neither the Lower Colorado River Authority, which manages Austin-area lakes, nor the state water plan takes the needs of boaters and marinas formally into account. Instead, the focus is on residential, industrial, environmental and agricultural use.

But a nascent movement in the Legislature is afoot to elevate the demands of recreational users, a decision that could have major consequences for how water is allocated along state rivers.

Such a proposal faces a steep uphill climb, with opposition likely to emerge from industries, environmentalists and farmers, each of which have their own stake in the state’s rivers. But even the prospect of its introduction amid a historic drought in Texas suggests how lakeside interests across the state have tried to press an increasing advantage over downriver agricultural communities as the state grows more urban and suburban. And the mere possibility of such a change reverberates in the Colorado River basin, where lakesiders have long argued water ought to be kept in lakes Travis and Buchanan to benefit marinas, rather than released downriver for water-intensive agricultural purposes, such as the rice farming.

Recreation and other forms of economic development have “got to be taken into consideration,” said state Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland. Keffer, who served as a member of the House Natural Resources committee last session, said he plans to propose legislation after lawmakers reconvene in the Capitol in late January.

In a letter sent to members of the Senate Natural Resources Committee in September, state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, offered a similar message.

“It is incumbent upon the appropriate state entities - with direction from the Legislature - to ensure that the impact on communities, businesses and individuals is considered when permitting an authority’s use of this precious resource,” Birdwell wrote.

Keffer and Birdwell represent communities along Lake Granbury, a dammed lake on the Brazos River that includes Williamson County in its basin.

State Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, said in an interview that he would give such a proposal a hearing. But he said he wasn’t sure it would get out of committee, let alone through the Legislature as a whole.

“The lakes are for the health and safety of the public, for drinking water and for industrial use. It’s for the use of the people paying for it. In many cases, that means not for recreation and not for property values,” Fraser told the Austin American-Statesman (https://bit.ly/1wos9iZ ). “I’ll allow debate to happen, and I’ll listen to the debate, but I’m not going to carry the legislation even though it’d be very popular in my district. From a public policy standpoint, it’s a difficult sell.”

That’s because policymakers, as sympathetic and beholden as they might be to boaters, have long held that recreation isn’t a critical, necessary use of the water.

“The lakes were not built for that purpose,” said Andy Sansom, who leads the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University. “That’s not to deny the legitimacy of those concerns. But it’s sort of ironic when you have these lakes built for other purposes, such as water supply, flood control and hydroelectric power, and because of the rise of cities and resorts and suburban development, they’ve grown politically and economically stronger than the traditional uses of that water.”

“We’re moving toward an allocation system which I call, ‘Big dogs eat first,’” he said. “We haven’t given any water downstream on the Colorado over the last three years. The feeling is, ‘We’re bigger than you, so we’re going to take the water.’”

The prospect got an injection of seriousness when Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst included it on a list of issues he wanted lawmakers to investigate before the next legislative session begins.

Keffer’s and Birdwell’s constituents who live along Lake Granbury have seen it drop to nearly 10 feet below its historic average for October. Matters have grown so complicated and contentious on the Brazos River, home to Dow Chemical and long-standing agricultural interests, that the state environmental agency earlier this year established a special position - a watermaster - to sort out the issues.

In the Colorado River basin, where lakes Travis and Buchanan are 41 and 24 feet below average, respectively, the upriver interests have had the upper hand in recent years. In September, the LCRA board moved to keep more water impounded in lakes Travis and Buchanan, the chief reservoirs of Central Texas, even at the risk of jeopardizing environmental, fishing and farming interests downriver.

The LCRA decision comes as the Highland Lakes, struck by drought, hover at about a third of their capacity. But while the river authority solicits opinions from upstream and downstream recreational business - including upstream marinas and downstream rafting companies - its water management plan doesn’t include special carve-outs to keep a set amount of water in the lakes specifically for recreational purposes.

As the legislative session nears, downriver interests face some deep-seated political challenges. First among them: the absence of a clear legislative champion. Outmuscled by Fraser and state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, state Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, had been relegated to getting what he could for farming interests in recent years. Hegar is now in line to become comptroller in November. The best hope of the farming interests could be state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who is eager to show herself as an agriculture supporter as she runs for Hegar’s seat.

Hoping to pool their clout, farmers have teamed up with downriver school districts, hunting and fishing guides, birding groups and nature tourism businesses to press for more upriver water conservation, enforcement of drought-period watering restrictions and the construction of new water supplies.

Calling themselves the Lower Colorado River Basin Coalition, they argue that agriculture, businesses, industry, communities and the environment are in jeopardy.

Watson said his instinct is that recreation should be recognized by river authorities: “We should ideally plan for a world where water’s impact on our lives can be preserved, and that includes the way we interact with water, in it and on it.” But, he added: “When push comes to shove, human water needs, the power sector, manufacturing, industries and ag, may need to come first.”

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Information from: Austin American-Statesman, https://www.statesman.com

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