Need More Water? Build More Buckets

Photo by Jeff Heimsath/StateImpact Texas

Rice farmers in southeast Texas like Billy Mann are hoping a new plan to build smaller reservoirs will help their industry survive.

Water became scarce in Texas over the last year. While it’s never been plentiful, during the record drought of 2010-2011 and extreme heat, lakes and reservoirs went dry, water systems failed, and farmers and ranchers lost billions because of lack of rain.

In southeast Texas, rice farmers were cut off from water for irrigation for the first time in history, and under a new plan they’ll likely be having more years like this one in the future.

So the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), which manages water in the Highland Lakes and downstream along the Lower Colorado, has set a goal for the next five years: gain 272 billion pounds. Of water.

In a January announcement, the LCRA said that they wanted to add 100,000 acre-feet of water. (An acre-foot is the amount of water it takes to cover an acre of land with water a foot deep, about 326,000 gallons of water.) One of the ideas to accomplish that goal was to build “off-channel” reservoirs downstream of the Highland Lakes, essentially side buckets that capture extra water downstream and store it for agricultural use.

This week the LCRA announced a pilot project to see how viable the bucket idea is.

The agency will test two gravel pits downstream to store water. Together, they can store about 2,000 acre-feet of water. That’s obviously far short of the 100,000 acre-feet goal, but the idea is to try storing water there to see if it can be done on a larger scale.

Rice farmers in the region are counting on that additional storage to help their industry survive. “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,” Haskell Simon,a Matagorda County rice farmer, told StateImpact Texas earlier this year when their water was cut off.

More from an LCRA release:

“The pits are on private property. In exchange for allowing LCRA to use the gravel pits, the landowner will be allowed to use LCRA’s canal system to pump groundwater for irrigating the landowner’s fields.

LCRA plans to fill the pits several times over the course of the irrigation season. No water from the Highland Lakes will be used for this project. The water will be pumped from the pits to the irrigation canals to determine if the pits can make the irrigation system more efficient. LCRA won’t know if the gravel pits can achieve that goal until the testing is complete and irrigation season is over. That occurs in mid-October.”

“LCRA is looking at all possible options for new water supplies,” General Manager Becky Motal said in a statement. “If this project works, it would be a small but important part of that larger goal.”

The LCRA says that if the test is a success, they could possibly use other gravel pits in the area to store water this pilot project works, it is possible that similar projects could be conducted at other downstream gravel pits.

You can learn more about the drought and water issues in Texas at our new interactive web page, Dried Out: Confronting the Texas Drought.

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