We won’t know for sure until midnight on Thursday, but there may not be enough water for rice farmers in southeast Texas 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 levels of the two major Highland Lakes, Buchanan and Travis, need to be at 850,000 acre-feet before water is sent to rice farmers downstream. (An acre-foot of water is a volume measurement, equal to about 325,800 gallons of water). As of right now, those lakes are at about 846,300 acre-feet, and you can even watch a ticker of the levels at the LCRA’s website.
For a while it looked like it was going to be really close. While just weeks ago the lakes held only 767,000 acre-feet, after heavy rains they rose rapidly. But those inflows slowly dropped, and for the last week have averaged only about 1,000 acre-feet of water a day. As of Tuesday morning, the lakes were at 842,000 acre-feet, leaving many rice farmers to give up hope, knowing it would take at least a week to get to the levels they needed.
And then, out of nowhere, the levels suddenly went up overnight Tuesday, reaching 846,000 acre-feet by Wednesday morning. If they could go up 4,000 acre-feet in a day, and there was still almost two days left before the deadline, perhaps there’s a chance after all, many thought.
But where did that water suddenly come from? It certainly didn’t rain. The Highland Lakes region has seen no more than a tenth of an inch of rain in the last week.
But there was a chance of rain in the forecast for the lake region (twenty percent, to be exact), and that was enough for the LCRA to release 2,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Lyndon B. Johnson (a constant-level lake used as a “pass-through” lake for the storage lakes) to Lake Travis. That was behind the sudden jump in the amount of water, according to the LCRA. “Under that forecast it’s normal operating procedure to lower lake LBJ — still within its normal operating range — to prepare for any inflows that the rain may produce,” Clara Tuma, spokesperson for the LCRA, told StateImpact Texas. So the LCRA sent some water in LBJ downstream in anticipation, she says. “That combined with inflows from recent rains made Lake Travis rise a bit,” Tuma says. “But even with that rise, we do not expect to reach 850,000 acre feet on March 1.”
Again, we’ll know the outcome at midnight Thursday. “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.”
But unless something big happens at the last minute, many rice farmers in Texas will go without a crop this year. While this will be happy news for many lake residents and businesses, it will be devastating for the farmers. We’ll have more on their story and how they’re preparing for that outcome soon.