For decades, the Lower Colorado River Authority has insisted that it is obliged to sell its water to all comers as long as the supply in the river and the Highland Lakes holds out.

“If the water’s available and we refused to provide it, I think we’d be derelict in our duties,” L.C. Meyer told the American-Statesman in 1981, when he was assistant general counsel at the LCRA.

“We have a legal obligation to provide water on an indiscriminate basis,” Tom Mason said when he became general manager of the LCRA in November.

But does it? The question is fundamental to the issue of growth in Central Texas, where it will go and how – or whether – it will be managed.

It turns out that the answer depends on what kind of water the LCRA is selling. Traditionally, the vast majority of its water is sold “raw” – untreated – and in large quantities to cities such as Austin, developers, industrial plants and farmers.

Since the 1990s, the LCRA has also treated and sold water on a retail basis to subdivisions, country clubs and the like, delivered by water lines from the river authority’s treatment facilities, now scattered over 11 counties. Because some feed suburban sprawl, these systems are the LCRA’s most controversial water enterprises.

They also might be the least defensible. Although the river authority’s obligation to make raw water available when possible has historical and legal precedent, less basis exists for delivery of treated water.

Austin water lawyer Mike Booth says there’s no case law on whether the LCRA is obligated to build the infrastructure to treat and transport water to serve developments in its basin.

“If LCRA has this water, can you compel them to build a treatment plant?” he asked. “I would probably argue that you can’t. But if they had a treatment plant, (the courts) could require them to make the water available.”

Regardless of what the courts say, the state could step in. “The Legislature would feel that if this area needed water and the LCRA could afford it, they would compel them to do so,” Booth said.

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