Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

After Water is Cut Off, Texas Rice Farmers Say They Still Have a Future

As the clock struck midnight Thursday, many rice farmers across southeast Texas had to face a sobering reality: for the first time in history, they will not have water for their crops. “It saddens me because like I said, my family’s been farming rice since 1905,” says rice farmer Paul Sliva. “This will be the first year we haven’t. There’s no other crop than rice for me. It’s gonna be a weird year. It’s gonna be a sad year for me.”

How did this happen? Under an emergency plan to deal with the drought, the Lower Colorado River Authority cut off water to the rice farmers downstream in Matagorda, Wharton and Colorado counties because there wasn’t a enough water in the lakes. They were about a billion gallons short.

The lakes that hold that water mean different things to different people. For the people that live on the lakes – and many of whom make their living off of them – they’re a boon to property values and business. But when massive amounts of water were sent downstream to rice farmers last year, more than three times the amount used by all of Austin, in the midst of a record drought no less, the lakes neared historic lows. And that hurt the lake interests, like the construction company owned by Buster Cole. He says rice farmers don’t appreciate the financial impact of their withdrawals from the lake.

“They have no respect for the impact of what’s happening on our Highland Lakes, from economic property values, business owners, all the things involved,” Cole says. “Everybody’s involved in this, and it’s bad.”

For the city of Austin and many factories and some power plants, the lakes are a crucial source of water. And for the rice farmers? They say the water in the lakes is practically a birthright.

“In a sense it’s our water,” says Haskell Simon, a rice farmer in Matagorda County. He says that without people like him growing rice, we wouldn’t have the lakes and dams we do today. “In order to give a more assured supply of water for that burgeoning industry, there was a pressure to develop those storage facilities which are now the Highland Lakes,” he says.

But as the population of Central Texas has grown, with new factories and power plants along with it, rice farmers have faced an uphill battle convincing people that the water belongs to them. And in the future – they’ll be getting less water.

“It’s no doubt that there’s more and more of a claim on the water in the basin every year,” says Joe Crane, who has a rice farm in Bay City and several other businesses that rely on the rice industry. “The rice industry just needs time. We’re right on the cusp of some technological changes that will allow us to grow more rice with less water.”

Some of those technological changes include new genetically-modified strains of rice that need less water. Farmers are also drilling their own wells, but that can cost a quarter million dollars. And many farmers have used lasers to level their fields, resulting in significant reductions in how much water they use.

Photo by Terrence Henry/StateImpact Texas

Haskell Simon represents rice famers in Bay City, Texas.

But none of these options solves the problem of finding more water for a thirsty crop. That’s where a new plan comes in: take water flowing into the Lower Colorado below the Lakes and store it. “The drainage area of the Colorado river below Austin is sufficiently large that in good rainfall years, enough water flows into the Colorado below the dams for our needs,” says Haskell Simon, the Matagorda County rice farmer.

To store that water, the LCRA is making a plan to build “off-channel reservoirs:” small offshoots of the river that capture water during heavy rains.

But who’s going to pay for it? The LCRA says that’s still an open question. The rice farmers are looking to the Department of Agriculture for help.

“To be a farmer you have to be optimistic,” says the rice farmer Paul Sliva. “Because so many things can go against you, the weather being the main thing. But we’re optimistic that we’ll get the water that we want next year. That the lakes will recover enough where we’re not curtailed and we get the water that we want.”

The rice farmers say they can make it one year without water, thanks to crop insurance and planning ahead. But more than one year without water might mean the end of their way of life in southeast Texas.

Video: In Their Own Words — What No Water Means for Texas Rice Farmers


  • Ed Hammond

    I rather doubt that the report is accurate when it states that farmers are growing “new genetically-modified strains of rice that need less water.”  No genetically modified rice is presently commercially cultivated in the US. In fact, when Bayer “accidentally”introduced unapproved GM rice into the US, it resulted in collapse of US export markets and a $750 million settlement that the company is still paying out.

    • Thanks for reading, Ed. To my knowledge the rice farmers aren’t growing those GMO rices yet, but are looking into them as an option. The piece quotes one farmers saying they’re “on the cusp of some technological changes,” including possibly growing new strains of GMO rice. But the piece doesn’t state that they are already growing that rice. Apologies if that wasn’t clear in the text. Thanks again.

  • OK it’s official, you drank us out of house and home, please go home now.

  • Roger Studer

    It is sad and wrong when Texas lake water is used to make the city lawns green, while the rice fields are drying up!

    • pauloftow

       Roger: Do you know that rice farms are flooded with about a foot of water above the plants? it’s not really “irrigation.” It is for weed control. Only an idiot thinks the rice fields are “drying up.”

  • Sam

    I have been hearing rumers that a pipeline is being proposed from the colorado river to Lake Texana to insure Formosa ( a Chinese owned company) will have  enough water for a  major exspansion. Maybe the LCRA should be thin king more about our US owned companies that will be hurt by the lack of rice being planted in Texas. It is not just the rice farmers,but what about all the agriculture support bussineses that will be hurt. You will see many people in SE Texas laid off work.

  • Wandaweed42

    When they get the tar sands down from Canada, where is the vast amount of water required to refine it going to come from?

  • pauloftow

    That is about as ridiculous as anything I have read from the rice bandits. I am very tired of hearing this particular shopworn lie. The lakes were built for flood control and to bring hydroelectric power to the Hill County. Certainly the rice bandits “supported” building dams. The dams kept their farms from being periodically washed away by Colorado floods. I see from EWG.org that Mr. Simon collected $ 244,478.80 in federal farm welfare over 15 years. To piggyback on his line of thinking: “In a sense, it’s our money.”

    • pauloftow

       I extracted a bit of text, but it got bolixed somehow. Here is what should have preceded my note.

      “In a sense it’s our water,” says Haskell Simon, a rice farmer in
      Matagorda County. He says that without people like him growing rice, we
      wouldn’t have the lakes and dams we do today.

    • Lawn, golfcourse, recreation bandit.  Sad when food fails to become a priority.  Happened in Europe during WWII and they almost starved to death.  Sad when city folks don’t learn history.

      • Highfalutin

        Food being a priority does not necessitate that we allow the growing of highly water-intensive, water-dependent crops to largely dictate our water policy, in an area that everyone has known for decades is commonly affected by droughts.  And yes, I also find vast wastage of water for urban and suburban “recreational” use to be repellent.  It seems to me the city and the rural folks are sooner or later going to have to sit down together and agree on a system that will work more efficiently for everyone in the long term.

        • Nryninaygr

          I couldn’t agree more.  Many people however just are not aware, or are in denial about a very real crisis looming.  Everyone is in this together.  I don’t give a hoot about my property value as long as my family has a roof over their head, clean water, and good food.  But then again, we didn’t take out enormous loans for our home.  We bought the land, and built our home ourselves over many years.  Priorities in this country need to be straightened out, or our grandchildren will be facing the consequences through famine, drought, and the violence that is sure to come along with it.  Whether people choose to acknowledge it or not, vast consumerism, and disrespect for our environment are the culprits.

  • Nryninaygr

    I think it is so disturbing that the minute a drought hits, it is the “us vs. them” attitude.  The water is an important resource for sure, and it is important to keep food production in the US as much as possible as well.  However, the current farming system was implemented when water was abundant, and therefore did not have particularly precise irrigation, or feeding systems.  So, these companies need to step up to make sure every drop used is justified, and people need to step up, and make sure they are taking personal responsibility for their water usage as well.  I for one am sick of seeing people waste gallons of water on grass in the desert, and then turn around and rage against companies like these.
    Everyone needs to man up, and start taking responsibility for proper management of this precious resource.

  • Northernscout

    Its the old sheep farmer vs cattle rancher scenario all over again. Each wants to survive.

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