Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Rice Farmers Used More Than Three Times as Much Water as Austin Last Year

Photo by Jeff Heimsath/StateImpact Texas

Rice farmer Billy Mann says that in the future, they'll have to grow more rice with less water.

New numbers put into perspective just how much water rice farmers in southeast Texas used out of the Highland Lakes for their water-intensive crop compared with city-dwellers in Austin last year. The Highland Lakes consist of two large reservoirs, Lakes Buchanan and Travis, and several pass-through lakes. Buchanan and Travis are still only half-full, despite a wetter-than-average winter.

A new report from the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), which manages water in the Highland Lakes for the city of Austin and farmers downstream, shows that rice farmers used 367,985 acre-feet of water from the lakes in 2011. (An acre-foot is a measurement of water, i.e., how much water it would take to cover one acre with one foot of water, which is roughly equivalent to 325,800 gallons.) Another 65,266 acre-feet of water was released from the lakes downstream but not used, due to evaporation, seepage, or “conditions changed that eliminated the need for the water,” according to the LCRA, bringing their total to 433,251 acre-feet used from the Highland Lakes.

The city of Austin, on the other hand, used 106,622 acre-feet of water from the Highland Lakes, less than a third of the amount used by rice farmers. And the same pretty much holds true for previous years. (Another 192,404 acre-feet of water straight up evaporated from the lakes last year.)

So why do rice farmers get to use so much water, when some towns are running out?

Graph by LCRA

Rice farmers downstream on the Lower Colorado will tell you it’s because they were here first.

“In a sense it’s our water,” Haskell Simon, a rice farmer and representative of the industry in Matagorda County told StateImpact Texas earlier this year. “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 said. Texas water laws can be confounding, but in the case of the rice farmers it essentially boils down to this: they were here first, so as long as there is enough water around, they get to use it for their crops.

The LCRA says as much on their website:

“According to state water law, first in time is first in right. Downstream rice farmers were given first water rights in the Colorado basin, and these rights are senior to LCRA’s water rights for the Highland Lakes. In fact, without the support of the rice farmers, the Highland Lakes and dams might never have been built. Rice farmers were among the strongest supporters of building the Highland Lakes and dams in the 1930s. They recognized the value of the dams in easing flooding and making water available during droughts.”

“At the time that our water rights system was created, there was not only no one living on these lakes, they [the lakes] weren’t here… so the water flowed down to rice farmers on the southern part of the basin and they got all they needed,” Andrew Sansom, executive director of the River Systems Institute at Texas State University, told PBS NewsHour earlier this year in an interview published by StateImpact Texas. “Today, the economic engine gendered by recreation, residential growth, and tourism up on [Lake Travis] far exceeds the [size of the] rice industry, and so there is a pitched battle underway as to who should get the water and it’s going to get worse. Essentially, we’re struggling with a system [created] hundreds of years ago… and bears no resemblance to what we look like [today].”

Rice farmers not only use much more water than Austin, they also pay less for it. That’s because their supply is “interruptible,” meaning that if the amount of water in the Highland Lakes reaches a certain level, they’ll be cut off. But that’s never happened until this year.

On March 1st, under the guidelines of an LCRA emergency drought plan adopted last fall, the 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. And under a new water plan currently under review by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), they’ll be less likely to get water in the future, especially during dry years like 2011.

You can read the full LCRA report here:


  • Jcaylor1

    State Impact and Terrence Henry have done a great job in describing the water use problem on the Lower Colorado River.  Andrew Samson is right–demographics have changed dramatically since the dams were constructed, yet the downstream “interruptibles” have held on to the view “its our water!”  We now have 1.5 million people in the 5 county MSA around the Lakes using the reservoirs for drinking water, and 250-500 rice farmers using most of the water, with little eye on conservation (Garwood used 6.25 AF of water PER ACRE last year for their rice!)  and 1/4 to 1/3 evaporates along the way. We taxpayers are subsidizing them with millions of tax dollars each year, while they pay $6/AF and Austinites pay $151. All citizens of Central Texas should first: conserve water like crazy, and second: write their congressmen to fund SUSTAINABLE water supply resources.  Desalination has to be a central piece (Susan Combs supports it) and aquifer recharge storage is successfully being used elsewhere in the State.  The TWDB water plan shows that ag usage should decline dramatically by 2060, but if 2011 is allowed to happen again, the trend will not materialize.  We need all citizens to get involved before we run out of water.

  • waterbiz

    Its human nature that when given something virtually for free, repetitively, and for generations, the entitlement mentality is created. This is SO evident here. These rice farmers have been coddled forever with government subsidies, free water and even crop insurance for bad crop yield years. There is zero incentive for them to conserve, or become more self sufficient. They regularly claim things like “its their water” or “we were here before the Highland Lakes”- like children arguing in a schoolyard. The LCRA has been buffaloed by these guys forever and have allowed the tail to wag the dog all along. So much so that in 2011 the LCRA released a world record amount of water to these guys even though at the same time the LCRA was gauging and reporting the lowest inflows of water into the Highland Lakes in history! When questioning the lack of intelligence of these releases (while they were happening ) what we received from the LCRA was basically a blank, expressionless stare and comments such as “we’re following the approved water management plan” like drones or robots. Finally, I suspect someone from the LCRA Board went and actually looked at how little water was left. Then, the community of Spicewood Beach on Lake Travis had their well run dry. The LCRA mismanagement of our drinking water was finally exposed nationally. btw- At the same time one of these rice farmers complained in the media that if his water was curtailed, he would have to lay off one of his private pilots.

  • Seekinginfo

    Let’s assume that the rice farmers are entitled to some water. One question is “How much are they entitled to?” Another question is “What has been their annual usage since the Highland Lakes were created?” It wouldn’t seem reasonable that the rice farmers have an unlimited entitlement, especially if their use of water has been increasing. Perhaps they’re entitled to the amount used in some earlier period, e.g. the average draw on the system over a 10 year period in the 1940s or 1950s. After all, that’s the period in which their claim originated. If they claim that they are due all the water they might ever want to draw from the system, then there’s no way that any kind of political solution is possible. And I can’t believe that the law or the courts would ever accept that the creation of the Highland Lakes system was soley for the benefit of the rice farmers.

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