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By W. Gardner Selby June 24, 2014

Water sent through Austin to downstream farmers in 2011 was three times what the city lately uses in a year

Austin-area residents worried about drought might rue an agency’s 2011 decision to let thousands of gallons of water from the Highland Lakes flow past the capital to downstream farmers, the head of the Austin Water Utility said.

A May 27, 2014, news story said: "Massive releases of water to rice farmers downstream that greatly reduced lake levels in 2011, the single driest year in Central Texas history, didn’t help either." The story--by StateImpact Texas, a collaboration of KUT Austin and KUHF Houston--then quoted Greg Meszaros, the utility’s director, as saying: "Comparison-wise, about three years worth of Austin’s water use" was sent to rice farmers that year.

That much?

Asked the basis of Meszaro’s comparison, utility spokesman Daryl Slusher referred to annual reports on water use from the Lower Colorado River Authority, which oversees water releases from the chain of man-made lakes along the Colorado River running through Austin: Buchanan, Inks, LBJ, Marble Falls, Travis and Austin.

By email, Slusher said the reports show that in 2011, the latest year the authority sent water downstream to rice farmers, the provided water was three times the amount of water used by Austin in 2011, 2012 or 2013.

According to the authority’s March 30, 2012, report on water use in 2011, the authority that year released 529,580 acre-feet in water for downstream agricultural purposes, including rice farming. That broke down to 433,251 acre-feet let go from the Highland Lakes plus 96,329 acre-feet of water used by farmers from the river alone, the report says.

An acre-foot, 325,851 gallons, is roughly equal to the water used by three average Austin households in a year.

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And the 529,580 acre-feet of water that went to farmers compares to Austin using 168,334 acre-feet of water that year, the report states, including 61,712 acre-feet diverted from the Colorado River at Lake Austin and 106,622 acre-feet obtained from the Highland Lakes under a city contract with the authority.

This result suggests the water released to farmers was equal to a little more than three times what Austin used that year. Also, Slusher pointed out that according to the authority, Austin used less water in 2012 (151,495 acre-feet) and even less again (142,027 acre-feet) in 2013, widening the 3-to-1 ratio for those years.

Another way to suss Meszaro’s claim, Slusher wrote, lies in adding up the last three years’ worth of Austin’s water use, which gets us 461,856 acre-feet, or 13 percent less than the 529,580 acre-feet released to farmers in 2011.

Our ruling

Meszaros said billions of gallons of river water released to downstream rice farmers in 2011 equaled about three years worth of Austin’s water use.

Equaled or exceeded is the long and short of it. We rate this claim as True.

TRUE – The statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing.

Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.

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More by W. Gardner Selby

Water sent through Austin to downstream farmers in 2011 was three times what the city lately uses in a year

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