If you’re a rice farmer in southeast Texas, chances are you’re taking a close look at the level of the Highland Lakes a few hundred miles away. If those lakes aren’t at a certain level by midnight on Thursday, there will be almost no water sent downstream for rice farmers this year.
Under an emergency water plan adopted by the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) in late September in response to the drought, the combined storage of Lakes Buchanan and Travis has to be at 850,000 acre-feet by midnight on the night of March 1st in order for water to be sent downstream. (One acre-foot equals around 325,850 gallons of water.) Just weeks ago they were at 767,000 acre-feet, but after heavy rains they began to rise, and today sit at 842,000 acre-feet, or 42 percent of their capacity. Now around a billion gallons of water are standing between the farmers and the loss of a season. (Update: as of Wednesday morning, the LCRA says the lakes are at a combined 846,000 acre-feet, even closer to the cutoff point.)
That’s put some Highland Lakes residents and business owners in an unique position. “We were praying to not have too much rain,” says David Lindsay, a board member of the Central Texas Water Coalition, which represents lake interests. “Isn’t that perverse? Because we saw the wolf that would generate. If you release [that water] and we kept going into a drought like last year, then we truly could start to talk about putting the drinking water at risk.”
“It’s unprecedented,” says Haskell Simon, who represents rice farmers in Bay City, Texas. “What effect it will have we don’t know. We’ll see.” Simon says that based on current inflows, the Highland Lakes are getting about 600 acre-feet a day. “So if we’re looking at a need of 8,000 acre-feet to meet that threshold, that would mean twelve days of flow,” he says. “It’s gonna be that close.”
The Highland Lakes had their lowest inflows on record last year, and Texas had its driest year on record. That was behind the LCRA adopting the emergency water plan, and also factored into the adoption last week of a longer-term plan that will have even higher cutoffs for the rice farmers and other agricultural customers downstream.
Under the emergency plan, even if the water reaches 850,000 acre-feet it will be a reduced amount (no more than 125,000 acre-feet, although more than that is lost en route to the farmers), and only available for the first crop. The LCRA would begin pumping water out of the Lower Colorado River into irrigation canals no sooner than April 1. Water for a second crop (called a rattoon, which is in essence a second blooming of the first crop’s seeds) would be subject to approval by the LCRA board.
While it may not be be clear until late Wednesday night whether there will be a real Texas rice crop this year, it’s apparent to rice farmers that the current arrangement isn’t going to work for long. Look for more from StateImpact Texas this week on what the cutoff would mean for rice farmers, and how they’re preparing for a future with less water.