Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Why Texas Rice Farmers May Get Water Next Year

Photo by Jeff Heimsath/StateImpact Texas

Rice farmers downstream of the Lower Colorado may get water for their fields next year.

Once again, the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) is coming under fire from some Central Texans. The reason? A recommendation by agency staff that could lead to water being sent downstream next year for rice farming.

The LCRA controls some of the more hotly-contested water in the state of Texas. There is business and real estate upstream that relies on good lake levels to thrive; agriculture, power generation and ecosystems downstream that also need a certain amount of water to get by; and in the middle, the City of Austin. Striking a balance between the many interests and finite resources available for them to share has been an ongoing difficulty in recent years for the agency.

Last week, staff at the agency recommended that the LCRA not seek emergency drought relief from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), which has to approve water management plans.

The agency had been operating under the emergency plan that allowed it to stop downstream water releases and keep more water in the lakes because of the risk of shortage posed by the drought. That resulted in most downstream rice farmers being cut off from water for the first time in history this year. Those farmers use massive amounts of water to flood their fields, more than three times as much water as the city of Austin used in 2011 was sent downstream to rice farmers from the Highland Lakes.

But now, by not seeking emergency relief, the LCRA will revert back to pre-drought rules, meaning water again would flow to irrigate farmland downstream.

“If the combined storage on January 1st, 2013, were to be where it is today, if nothing changed between now and then, the irrigation customers would be allowed about 183,000 acre feet of stored water from the river,” says Clara Tuma, a spokesperson for the LCRA.

183,000 acre feet works out to around 60 billion gallons of water. That’s nearly double the amount of water as the entire city of Austin used in 2011 from the Highland Lakes.

While the drought situation has improved from last year, the recommendation immediately drew criticism from residents and business owners on the Highland Lakes. Lake Travis, where Janet Caylor owns a marina and property, is still only 42 percent full.  She says sending more water downstream will threaten the economy of the highland lakes area. But, that the issue is even bigger than that.

“This is a gamble with the drinking water of a million and a half Central Texans,” Caylor tells StateImpact Texas.

That ‘gamble’ will come up for a vote by the LCRA Board of Directors in November, when they’ll decide whether to follow staff recommendations or to seek emergency drought measures again like in 2011. To further complicate matters, a new water management plan for the LCRA is also under consideration at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. But the LCRA says it does not know when a decision will be reached about that new plan, which was submitted for approval back in May.

The agency is also working on securing new supplies of water downstream to alleviate some of the stress on the Highland Lakes.


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