Today the board of the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) approved a second year of emergency drought measures for some of the major water supplies in Central Texas, and under the new rules many will have to keep an eye on both the weather and the calendar to see how it all plays out. Rice farmers could be cut off for a second year in a row, or they could end up receiving water, sending the Highland Lakes to possibly historic low levels.
The LCRA is the quasi-state agency that manages the Highland Lakes and the Lower Colorado River. It’s in charge of the two main reservoirs of Lakes Buchanan and Travis, which provide drinking water to the people of Austin and other municipalities, as well as industrial customers. But the lion’s share of the water (roughly two-thirds of it) collected by those lakes goes downstream to grow rice in Texas.
Today’s emergency plan could result in a curtailment of that water for rice farming, but it depends on how much water is in the lakes come January (and again in March).
Here’s the new plan: If on January 1, 2013, Lakes Buchanan and Travis have less than 775,000 acre-feet of water in them (or are roughly 39 percent full), then water will not be sent downstream to three of the four irrigation districts serving rice farmers downstream in South Texas. (An acre-foot is a unit of measurement for water: how much water it would take to fill up an acre of land one feet deep, equal to 325,851 gallons.)
But rice farmers get a second chance in March.
If the rains fall between January and March and the lakes rise to 775,000 acre-feet or above, a limited amount of water relative to the standard plan (121,500 acre-feet, or 39.5 billion gallons) would go downstream. (By means of comparison, the city of Austin used 106,622 acre-feet of water, or 34.7 billion gallons, from the Highland Lakes in all of 2011, three times less than rice farmers downstream used from the lakes that year.)
As we reported Tuesday, if the lakes are deemed full enough under the emergency plan and water does go downstream, it doesn’t guarantee that there will be enough water left for the City of Austin and other “firm” customers if drought conditions persist. Under the LCRA’s current long-term projections, in the worst-case scenario there will likely be enough water in the lakes under the emergency plan to send downstream to rice farmers. (That latest update is from September 30, and may not reflect their current forecasts. At that time the LCRA was not seeking an emergency plan.)
In 2011, the LCRA was widely criticized for sending 367,985 acre-feet of water (or roughly 120 billion gallons) downstream to rice farmers during the record drought.
That fall, under pressure from municipal interests like the City of Austin and residents and business owners on the Highland Lakes, the board adopted an emergency drought plan that set a cut off point. If the Highland Lakes weren’t at least 42 percent full on March 1, 2012, holding 850,000 acre-feet of water or more, the rice farmers would be cut off (save for around 20,000 acre-feet sent to the Garwood irrigation district, whose rice farmers have a firm contract with the LCRA). Last year’s emergency plan is notably more stringent than the one adopted today.
On March 1, 2012, the lakes were barely under the mark, and downstream irrigation was largely suspended. Still, the Highland Lakes haven’t recovered in the time since, and are currently only 43 percent full.
Overall, Texas’ reservoirs and lakes that supply water to the state are collectively only 66 percent full, according to the Texas Water Development Board. 70 percent of the state is still in drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor Map.
Forecasts earlier in the fall had called for a cooler, wetter winter than average, but they’ve since been changed back to normal. John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist, says there’s a fifty-fifty chance that an abnormally dry, hot weather patten like the one in 2011 could return to Texas next year.
Rice uses so much water for several reasons. Flooding the fields kills weeds (rice is one of the few crops that can stand essentially drowning), eliminating the need for pesticides. And it thrives in wet conditions. But its staggering water use in a growing state that faces dwindling water supplies has come under criticism.
A 2004 report by the UN found that conventional rice farming is often less than 50 percent efficient in its water use, and only a quarter of the water used actually goes directly to rice cultivation. Rice farmers in South Texas say they’re working on ways to use less water, in some cases by laser-leveling their fields and in others by looking to genetically-modified strains that require less water. And the LCRA is at work on building 100,000 acre-feet of downstream water storage that will catch excess water during wet periods for irrigation use later and ease the strain on the Highland Lakes.
Now the emergency drought plan goes to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) for approval, a process that could take months, as it did in 2011.