AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The agency that regulates water levels of the Colorado River lakes in central Texas voted Wednesday to ask the state to waive temporarily requirements that it release lake water downstream to Matagorda Bay.
By a 9-6 vote, the Lower Colorado River Authority board decided to seek the waiver from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for 120 days — with the possibility of a 60-day extension — because of drought in central and western Texas. The board had been hoping for a break in the drought to restore water levels in the Highland Lakes upstream from Austin.
Meanwhile, authority General Manager Becky Motal announced she will retire at the end of the year after serving 2½ years in the job and 27 years with the LCRA.
The water releases are required to maintain the health of the coastal bay's ecosystem. However, the authority contends the water to be released is especially vital to central Texas, where a drought has left historically low water levels in the lakes. The region's major reservoirs, Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan, were now at 32 percent of their capacity, according to an LCRA statement. The agency hopes the waiver will allow the lakes to reach 45 percent of capacity.
The lakes provide hydroelectricity to more than 1.1 million customers in central Texas and the Hill Country, as well as fresh water for drinking, irrigation and other purposes.
Matagorda Bay is the second largest estuary on the Texas Gulf Coast, behind only Galveston Bay, and serves as a nursery and feeding ground for many species of fish, shrimp, shellfish and other marine life. The drought upstream has led to diminished inflows of fresh water that has allowed the salinity of the bay's waters to increase to levels higher than believed suitable for many of the juvenile marine organisms.
Environmentalists are saying that a halt to the lake water releases would be unfair to downstream interests.
"During serious drought conditions, all water users should share the pain. However, this vote unfairly seeks to cut off all flows from the Highland Lakes to Matagorda Bay without imposing any shared sacrifice on other water users," said Jennifer Walker, water resources coordinator for the Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter, in a statement.
"Cutting off the life-support flows for Matagorda without requiring serious cutbacks on lawn watering is not fair or consistent with state laws," said Myron Hess, manager of Texas water programs for the National Wildlife Federation.
The vote comes the same day as Motal's retirement announcement. She said she intends "to look for new opportunities and new challenges."
Only last year, the LCRA board approved a three-year, $325,000-a-year contract for Motal by unanimous vote.