New reservoir could bring rate hikes to Central Texans

New aerial footage shows extremely low water levels continue in Lake Travis (courtesy LCRA)
New aerial footage shows extremely low water levels continue in Lake Travis (courtesy LCRA)

LAKE TRAVIS, Texas (KXAN) — A plan to help Central Texans get through the region’s prolonged drought could end up costing residents more money.

The Lower Colorado River Authority unanimously approved spending $17 million Wednesday on the next phase of a new reservoir near the Texas coast.

“The reservoir will benefit everyone in the region by reducing the demand on water from the Highland Lakes,” LCRA General Manager Phil Wilson said.

GOING IN-DEPTH // Drought impact

The drought has created several big financial challenges for the river authority.

  • First, they have less water to sell.
  • With the lake so low, the LCRA got exemptions to cut off water for rice farmers downstream for several years.
  • The lack of water has also stunted the LCRA’s original business model: hydro-electricity. Without water, the turbines inside the dams can’t run as much. According to our partners at the Texas Tribune, the LCRA generates only a third of the hydropower that it did in 2011.

But the project won’t be cheap. The LCRA estimates that the reservoir will cost nearly $215 million. To fund the construction, the agency could end up charging customers more for water.

“The lake was always full,” said Scott Rehling, remembering better days on Lake Travis. “There was a vibrant business out there with all the clubs and all the restaurants.”

Lakes Travis and Buchanan currently sit at just 38 percent full thanks to a severe water shortage. Word that construction of a massive reservoir in Wharton County may cause a rate hike doesn’t sit well with area residents.

“I don’t buy into the fact that the reason they’re looking to increase the rates is because of our issue,” Rehling said. “I think they’re trying to cover that new plant downstream.”

Others are also skeptical of the reasons behind a potential rate increase.

“The only thing that would be convincing for me is some sort of proposed budget,” said Austinite Matt Wallace. “That would show things in black and white. Unfortunately I think we’ve been delivered a lot of promises in the past that haven’t necessarily come true.”

The LCRA says the reservoir will also help the agency capture rainwater downstream from Austin.

“If they’re building a reservoir down south they’re clearly making it to make a profit,” said Brad Fidler. “If they’re going to make a profit, there’s no reason we need to pay for it as taxpayers.”

The LCRA held a public meeting about water rates in Bay City last month. They’ll have two more meeting in Central Texas in the coming weeks on March 31 at the Lakeside Pavilion in Marble Falls and another on April 3 at the Bee Cave City Hall.

While those meetings affect Marble Falls and Bee Cave right now, the LCRA wants to change the raw water rate, which would affect what city utilities pay. Any increase could end up being passed along to Austin customers.

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