Phil Wilson, the Texas Department of Transportation’s executive director, will become the new general manager of the Lower Colorado River Authority, LCRA’s board decided Wednesday. Wilson will replace Becky Motal, who is stepping down at the end of the year.
The decision came less than a month after the agency had named an interim general manager — Ross Phillips, who is Motal’s deputy — to take over after her departure, while continuing to search for a permanent replacement. Phillips will assume the position for the month of January, and Wilson will take over in February. The Tribune reported Tuesday that Wilson was being seriously considered for the position; A TxDOT spokesman said no transition plan is yet in place for his impending departure.
Wilson has led TxDOT for about two years, helping direct the agency toward outsourcing and other cost-cutting measures. He has been widely praised by lawmakers and TxDOT officials for helping make the agency more efficient, though some projects under his leadership, such as a plan to convert some badly damaged paved roads to gravel, have drawn criticism.
He previously served as Texas secretary of state and played various roles in Gov. Rick Perry‘s administration, including director of communications and deputy chief of staff. He is also a former senior vice president of public affairs for Luminant, the largest electric generator in Texas.
Wilson will take the helm at the LCRA, a nonprofit state agency that is a major water and electric supplier, at one of the most tumultuous times in its history. The agency voted last month on a controversial drought management plan that is almost sure to cut off water for Gulf Coast-area rice farmers in 2014, for the third straight year in a row. But it has also received harsh criticism for failing to do so even sooner from Austin-area lakeside interests, who contend the agency is partly responsible for the dwindling of Austin’s reservoirs. At the same time, the LCRA is set to lose a large portion of its power customers in 2016, which will have a major impact on its revenues.
After a contentious meeting over its latest drought management plan, which is almost sure to cut off water for coastal rice farmers in the lower Colorado River Basin for the third year in a row, the Lower Colorado River Authority voted 8-7 on Tuesday to approve the proposal.
Under the plan, if the Highland Lakes that provide water for Austin and much of Central Texas do not reach a level of at least 1.1 million acre-feet by March, the LCRA will not release water for irrigation downstream. Since the lakes only have 727,000 acre-feet today, about 36 percent of full, it would take historic levels of rainfall in the next several months to bring them back up to the 1.1 million “trigger.”
The Halloween floods that devastated parts of Central Texas recently had almost no effect on lake levels because the rain fell too far east. Had it fallen just a few miles farther west, LCRA staff said, the lakes could have gained as much as 200,000 acre-feet in one weekend.
The decision to implement the plan did not come easily. The LCRA said it received 130 public comments before the meeting, which more than 100 people attended. The objections from dozens of people who spoke, along with comments from the board members, reflected a wide variety of competing interests along the 600-mile Colorado River and the unprecedented consequences of several years of severe drought.
“We’ve had pain from one end of the basin to the other,” said the board’s chairman, Timothy Timmerman, an Austin real estate developer who has felt the effects of the dwindling reservoir that feeds the city. “None of us enjoy being in this situation.”
Many of those in attendance from Austin, including the city’s water utility director Greg Meszaros, state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, and a representative from the office of state Sen. Kirk Watson said a trigger of 1.1 million acre-feet wasn’t high enough. A limit of 1.4 million acre-feet would be more appropriate, they said, to help preserve property values for lakeside residents and maintain waterfront businesses as well as to protect the drinking water supplies for Central Texas residents. “We must advocate for the most risk-averse strategy,” Howard said.
Many others, though, argued the opposite, that the trigger should either be lower or stay at the current level of 850,000 acre-feet.
“The rice farmers were there first,” said state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, arguing that the state law that created the LCRA requires the agency to release water for irrigation purposes. “I’m upset today, not just for the rice farmers. I’m upset for Texas. We’re better than this.”
After public comment ended, Vice Chairman John Dickerson, who lives in Bay City, a town that has been hit hard by reduced freshwater inflows from the Colorado River into Matagorda Bay, implored the board to postpone voting until it holds a stakeholder meeting. His proposal lost by one vote. J. Scott Arbuckle, a board member who also hails from the lower Colorado River basin in Wharton County, called for even more drastic water restrictions and a lowering of the “constant level” lakes, such as Lake Austin. His idea failed, too.
The agency’s drought management proposal now goes to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for review. If the TCEQ approves the plan, it would be implemented in 2014.
During this week’s flooding, water lapped up to the waist of the Stevie Ray Vaughan statue along Lady Bird Lake. A photo — captured by an Austin photographer — has become an iconic image of the event. But given the area’s sophisticated system of dams, should water have ever risen that high?
Officials said the overflowing of Lady Bird Lake was somewhat unavoidable because of sudden heavy rain and overflowing nearby streams and tributaries, already full from previous rains this month. During the storm, three barges floated downstream and were caught on a nearby dam, but officials said they do not think that impeded water from flowing through it. “While it may not have been the highest historically, it was still a significant flood event,” said Carlos Cordova, spokesman for Austin Energy, which controls the floodgates of Longhorn Dam, east of downtown Austin.
The Lower Colorado River Authority controls how much water flows from Lake Austin into Lady Bird Lake by operating Tom Miller Dam. Several miles downstream, Austin Energy controls Longhorn Dam. That system generally requires the two agencies to be in touch when the LCRA is opening Tom Miller Dam floodgates. LCRA officials said Friday that they notified Austin Energy at 10:26 p.m. that they were about to open the floodgates, and Austin Energy officials said they responded.
Cordova said at that time Lady Bird Lake was only slightly above its normal 428.25 cubic feet. “Our crews were out there and monitoring the situation the whole time,” he said. “We were out there the entire flood event.”
Austin photographer Reagan Hackleman took his Stevie Ray Vaughan picture around 2:30 a.m. During the night, three barges being used to construct a boardwalk for the Butler Hike and Bike Trail came loose and became caught in Longhorn Dam. Yet Cordova said water continued flowing through the dam. He said the next morning, around 7 a.m., crews were able to remove the barges. By that time, according to Austin Energy, Lady Bird Lake’s levels were below normal by nearly a foot. “So it’s hard to conclude that the barges caused (any buildup of water) looking at the time line and lake levels,” Cordova said.
Clara Tuma, spokeswoman for the LCRA, said, “There is little question that water released from Tom Miller Dam during its floodgate operations added to the lake levels in Lady Bird Lake. But the lake was also being inundated during this time with significant inflows from the many creeks and streams that feed directly into the lake.”
Tuma added that “because Lake Austin has almost no capacity to store floodwaters, the release of floodwaters into Lady Bird Lake was unavoidable.”
The wicked hydrilla is in check, for now. None of the invasive, boat-choking plants were found on the surface of Lake Austin during a recent survey by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, though officials said some hydrilla still exists on the floor of the lake. This was cause for celebration among city officials and the Lower Colorado River Authority, which have spent a combined $210,000 in recent years stocking the lake with sterile Asian grass carp, an exotic fish that loves to munch on the problematic plant.
0:50 a.m. update: As of 10:45 a.m. Monday, Lake Travis had risen about two feet since the same time Saturday, according ot the Lower Colorado River Authority.
Lake Buchanan, meanwhile, is around the same level as it was Saturday morning.
Earlier: A day after Central Texas saw its most significant rainfall in more than three years, the region is poised to see more wet weather Monday and a potential risk for new flooding in the coming days.
Early Monday, scattered light showers are moving north across Central Texas could add another one-tenth inch to already overflowing rain gauges, the National Weather Service said.
Rain chances were at 30 percent Monday, the service said, and starting Tuesday, storms could produce heavy rainfall. By Tuesday night, rain chances will rise to 70 percent.
“There is a good chance for moderate to heavy rain from Tuesday afternoon into early Wednesday morning,” the service warned. The area could “likely receive one to two inches of rain and a few spots of up to 4 inches of rain.”
A boost in Pacific moisture thanks to Tropical Storm Octave, moving at 65 mph near the Mexican Pacific coast, combined with an approaching cold front due to arrive by Wednesday has boosted this week’s rain chances, said Pat McDonald, meteorologist for the service.
The cold front will also cause local temperatures to plummet.
By Wednesday, the high is slated to be 63, which would mark the lowest high temperature the region has seen in nearly seven months. That high was 61 posted in late March.
This weekend’s rains already boosted rivers and saturated grounds, so new heavy showers could produce more flooding quickly, the service warned Monday.
“A few showers today are probably not going to cause any problems,” McDonald said. “But Tuesday, with another two to four inches already on top of a saturated ground, we could see more flash flooding.”
The continued threat of rain comes after many Austin-area residents and repair crews spent Sunday recovering from damage dealt by the severe storms, which flooded some homes, triggered nearly a dozen water rescues and canceled the final day of the Austin City Limits Music Festival.
All low water crossings reported in Travis County during the storm were reopened by late Sunday. Austin Energy was reporting early Monday that virtually all of its outages for 6,000 customers seen during the height of the storm were all resolved.
This weekend’s rains were the most significant rainfall since Tropical Storm Hermine dumped 10 to 12 inches of rain across northern parts of Travis County and southern Williamson County in September 2010.
The weekend’s rain started around 10 p.m. Saturday, but picked up around midnight and fell relentlessly until mid-morning Sunday. Although rain had been predicted, the amount surprised forecasters.
Some areas reported rainfall totals of 10 inches or more Sunday, with flash flooding reported along normally dry creeks that damaged homes and triggered several dramatic vehicle rescues.
According to the LCRA, 3 to 10 inches fell in the Austin area, and about a foot fell at Barton Creek and Loop 360.
As of late Sunday, Lake Travis had risen about a foot, and Lake Buchanan had risen about an inch, an LCRA official said.
The heavy rains weren’t sufficient the bust the drought, however. For example, Lake Travis is still about 43 feet below its average level for this time of year.
The lingering drought that’s draining the Central Texas water supply and threatening the economy is not going to go away soon, a panel of experts said Wednesday. “I think it’s important they understand how precious water is and we need to value it and we need to do everything we can to conserve water,” said Becky Motal, general manager of the Lower Colorado River Authority. “But we also have to be mindful this is a growing state we’re going to have to as a state get together and develop new supplies of water and work together to do that.”
On Nov. 5, voters across Texas will decide on Proposition 6 which would allow the state to use $2 billion
A new Texas Lyceum Poll shows 49 to 36 percent of voters support the piece support the proposition. The engage breakfast happens once a month with a panel made up of the key players on certain issues. Heather Harward, founder and executive director of H2O4Texas, Greg Meszaros, Director of Austin Water and Becky Motal, general manager of the Lower Colorado River Authority answered questions and talked about the future of the Austin water supply. “We’re in a very intense drought one of the worst droughts Central Texas has ever experienced and it’s more than just a one-year drought, it’s a multi-year drought,” said Meszaros. “We’re all going to have to get an eye together and conserve water and work as a community to work through this drought until our lakes can refill.”
Currently, Austin has Stage 2 water restrictions, which means people can only water once a week. Meszaros said if the lake levels fall below 600,000 acre feet a storage, they’ll have to go to Stage 3, which means once a week with shorter times. He also said a Stage 4 may be possible if the trend continues through the fall. At the breakfast, which was at the Long Center, he said Austinites have set an all time low when it comes to water usage in terms of gallons per capita per day. He said it’s great people are stepping up to the plate and conserving, but it’s still not enough as the population continues the grow and the clouds lack to drop rain.
“Essentially our entire water supply is from the Colorado River system, the river itself and Highland Lakes which store water for times of drought and because we’ve been in this long term drought the Highland Lakes are about down to a third of their storage and we have to be extremely cautious to stretch that water as long as we can until we break out of this drought and the lakes refill,” said Meszaros. The LCRA said the state could benefit from Proposition 6. “I think the benefit of the state recognizing that it needs to be the leader in developing these water supplies is providing a mechanisms for entities that develop water to borrow money at very cheap rates to implement some of the plans,” said Motal. She said whether certain entities are using groundwater, piping, or building new off channel reservoirs like the LCRA, it cost money to do that.
Along the shores of Lake Austin, well-heeled and influential residents are organizing to fight a possible plan to help deal with the region’s drought by lowering the lake.
Two weeks after word leaked to the American-Statesman about the Lower Colorado River Authority’s idea, lakeside residents have launched a Facebook page complete with email-blast-ready talking points, helped move a state senator to act on their behalf and are pressuring Austin’s mayor and council members to step in as well.