In 2012, for the first time in history, most rice farmers on the Lower Colorado River in South Texas were cut off from water for irrigation. According to an emergency drought plan, there wasn’t enough water in the Highland Lakes of Buchanan and Travis to send water downstream. In the months since, those lakes have continued to drop, and this year rice farmers were cut off once again. New numbers from the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) show just how much was at stake in the decisions to withhold water: if normal amounts had been sent downstream for rice farming, the lakes could very well have dropped to their lowest levels in history.
Dry conditions persist in many parts of Texas, now in a third year of drought. While Central Texas had a relatively good 2012 rain-wise, it didn’t do much for the Highland Lakes. Inflows were below average for most of the year, and the LCRA says that so far this year, inflows are looking more like they did in 2011, which were the lowest ever recorded.
In a typical year, agricultural use makes up more than twice the amount of water as municipal use on the Lower Colorado. But last year, after cutting off most rice farmers downstream, that situation was reversed. Without most rice farming, water use in Central Texas was nearly cut in half last year, going down 45 percent from 2011.
If water had been sent from the Highland Lakes to rice farmers last year in amounts similar to previous seasons, it’s conceivable that the lakes would have dropped to levels worse than the drought of record in the 1950s. “Firm” customers, like the City of Austin, would face potential curtailments. The lakes are currently 39 percent full, and would go down to under 20 percent full if the usual amount of water had been sent downstream this year.
The LCRA says there will be no Highland Lakes water for most interruptible agricultural customers this year. They may enact emergency drought measures again next year, which could result in a third year of rice farmers not receiving water. A plan is under way to build more reservoirs downstream to serve agriculture, but it may not happen in time for rice farmers to survive three years out of business.
A significant amount of water was also lost to evaporation: the LCRA estimates that 144,759 acre-feet of water were lost from the Highland Lakes in 2012. That’s more than the City of Austin used from the lakes that year.
The LCRA has come up with a new water management plan that would result in less water for rice farmers during dry years like 2011, but the state agency reviewing it recently said it needs more work. Now the state will do its own modeling to make sure the LCRA’s water plan sufficiently manages municipal supplies.