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Political Effort to Keep More Water in Highland Lakes


The agency that manages the Highland Lakes, which serves as Austin’s primary source of drinking water, would not be allowed to send water downstream to rice farmers if the lakes are less than 42 percent full, undera bi-partisan proposal in the state legislature.

The bill was filed by State Senators Kirk Watson (D-Austin) and Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay). Watson says the Lower Colorado River Authority needs to prioritize so-called “firm” customers, such as cities and power plants, over “interruptible” customers such as rice farmers, who pay a fraction of the price for water.

“If they’re going to ask for curtailment of water usage from firm water uses, they don’t need to be releasing that kind of water downstream," Watson said. 

But the downstream interests are attacking the bill and saying it could be devastating to their local economies.

"This bill would cut out the heart of the rice industry in Texas for the benefit of party boats and jet skis on the Highland Lakes,” ​Ronald Gertson said in a statement. He's chair of the Colorado Water Issues Committee, a group representing rice farmers. “It is a blatant attempt to keep lakes at recreation-friendly levels at the expense of a stable food supply.” 

Meanwhile, State Representative Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat, has filed two bills -- HB 585 and HB 635 -- that would submit the LCRA to review by the Sunset Advisory Commission. The Sunset Commission reviews state agencies for efficiency, and can abolish them unless legislation is passed to continue them. 

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion-dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on X @KUTnathan.
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