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LCRA - SAWS Water Agreement and Contract
June 29, 2002

The Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) and the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) have initiated a project that could transfer approximately 150,000 acre-feet of water annually (49 billion gallons per year) from the lower Colorado River to the City of San Antonio. The water is going to be pumped approximately 170 miles up to San Antonio. The principal environmental concern with this project is that necessary freshwater inflows to Matagorda Bay will be seriously diminished.

To learn more, click on a topic:

    Environmental Concerns

    Project Specifics and Timeline


    Public Participation

    Contact Information

Environmental Concerns
This project has potential for numerous negative impacts that would affect a wide array of people and interest groups. The Matagorda Bay estuary depends on freshwater being delivered via the Colorado River. The reduction in freshwater inflow caused by this project could seriously harm the commercial and recreational fishing industries, and other economies of the bay. Over 98% of the commercially important species in the Gulf of Mexico depend on estuaries like Matagorda Bay during reproduction and other stages in the life cycle. Freshwater inflow keeps the bay and estuary environment within a scientifically identified salinity regime, and provides nutrient and sediment inflow from upstream. Without the freshwater inflow, the bay and estuaries become too saline to serve as healthy ecosystems for the numerous commercial and recreational species dependent on them. Analyses (see chart 1 and chart 2) completed by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) show that the project could amplify both the severity and duration of periods in which vital freshwater inflows are depleted.

LCRA staff, as well as General Manager Joe Beal, have told the residents of the Colorado Basin at numerous public meetings the project "will not go forward if we determine that it could harm the environment of the river or its bays and estuaries", however, the contract does not adequately make this commitment. Along with other concerned citizens, environmental groups such as NWF and Environmental Defense (ED) brought these concerns to the LCRA and SAWS during public comment meetings held during the contract review.

The Living Waters Project has identified the following specific concerns about the LCRA/SAWS water project process:
1. A team, or teams, of financially neutral, independent scientists should participate in the design and review of this project's feasibility studies. These unbiased scientists would help to design studies that would look at key environmental issues. They would then review the results of the study process and provide recommendations to LCRA and SAWS. LCRA and SAWS would make the final decision of whether or not this project should go forward, and how. This review committee can still be instituted into the process, as discussions about the process are ongoing.

2. The contract fails to define what must be known about environmental impacts before the project will proceed. In other words, if at the end of the study process it is not definitively determined that Matagorda Bay is going to be protected, should the project go forward? Historically, uncertainty about the environmental impacts of Texas water projects is not sufficient to stop the project.

3. There should be clearly designated interim "go" and "no go" decision points at which review is done to see if the project is meeting the requirement of "no environmental harm." This would reduce the chances that the project would continue by virtue of sheer bureaucratic momentum.

4. There is a financial disincentive for the LCRA to decide against the water transfer. The contract requires the LCRA to reimburse SAWS for half the cost of the studies if the contact is terminated. This provision creates a financial disincentive for LCRA to terminate the study if it finds during the seven-year period that the project will result in environmental harm.

5. Recent data show that a greater amount of freshwater than previously thought is needed for the bay system to maintain a "critical" salinity level. The critical level provides a small lower salinity "refuge" at the mouth of the river from which species are expected to repopulate the bay after a drought ends. LCRA's recently revised Water Management Plan (WMP) coupled with these new data indicate that salinities would exceed this threshold 22.7% of the time without the additional water exported to San Antonio. Previously, salinities were thought to exceed this threshold only 0.3% of the time. It is not clear how the LCRA will be able to meet the apparent higher freshwater inflow needs of the bay and fulfill new commitments to San Antonio.
Project Specifics and Timeline
The project will examine whether 330,000 acre-feet of additional water can be made available in the Colorado basin. Project components include:
  • Four off-channel reservoirs near the mouth of the Colorado River are proposed. Though originally described as "scalping flood flows", the reservoirs would in fact take water directly from the river even during times of low flow.
  • Conservation measures and new crop strains of rice will be investigated, with estimates of potential water savings of 116,000 acre-feet per year. This is over 20% of the water currently used for irrigation.
  • Conjunctive use will also be adopted, which involves the pumping of groundwater from the Gulf Coast Aquifer during dry years for a maximum of 62,000 acre-feet of water a year.
Phase I, from March 2002-March 2003, is a scoping period during which the Study Plan will be developed. Following this one-year period, if both the LCRA and SAWS boards adopt the Study Plan, the study period (Phase II) will begin. During Phase II, feasibility studies will be used to determine the amount of water that can be made available and to assess potential environmental impacts to the Colorado River and Matagorda Bay. At the conclusion of the seven-year study process, the LCRA Board will decide whether the study results show that the water transfer will satisfy the requirements of the contract. If LCRA and SAWS approve the transfer, approximately 150,000 acre-feet of firm-yield water (water that would not be restricted, even in the event of a drought) will be sent to San Antonio annually.

Initial estimates indicate that the cost to San Antonio for the 150,000 acre-feet of water will be approximately $1,000 per acre-foot. Other water supply options are available to the city of San Antonio. For example, municipal water conservation is estimated to cost between $50 and $200 an acre-foot, and according to the Region L water plan, could provide an additional 38,090 acre-feet of water. Similarly, improving conservation practices for irrigated agriculture in the western portions of the Edwards Aquifer and transferring the conserved water to San Antonio would make approximately 27,000 acre-feet available for $36 an acre-foot.

Public Participation
If this project concerns you, or affects your livelihood or interests, you can get involved during the current phase of the project, in which the study plans are being developed. Contact the Living Waters Project or go to the LCRA website and find out about ways to become involved, especially by adding your voice to the important call to include an impartial scientific review committee in to the study process.

For additional information, contact:
Laura Ball, Environmental Defense
lball@environmentaldefense.org, 512-478-5161

Case Study

Matagorda Bay Estuarine System

Matagorda Bay Estuarine System

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