Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

After Rice Farmers Cut Off Last Year, Water Use Cut in Half in Central Texas

Charts by LCRA

Without most rice farming, municipal use made up a much greater share of LCRA water in 2012.

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.

Chart by LCRA

Without water for most rice farmers last year, water use dropped dramatically in Central Texas.

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.


  • Richard Guldi

    The ancient Seaway and Pegasus Pipelines are now carrying corrosive and toxic tar sands crude containing arsenic and mercury past five North Texas reservoirs, and all of these reservoirs empty into the Trinity River. Seaway travels as close as one mile to these reservoirs or their tributaries for a distance of 40 miles, so there is major jeopardy to Texas water. Exxon’s Pegasus Pipeline has already proven how unsafe it is by flooding Mayflower AR in March 2013. If either Seaway or Pegasus ruptures and spills 1,000,000 gallons of toxic pollutants into water like the Enbridge’s decrepit Kalamazoo pipeline did in July 2010, the Rice farmers near Houston can kiss their water supply good-bye. You can’t clean arsenic and mercury from the bottom of a lake or river, and it will stay there, leaching out to pollute for 50-100 years. See StopSeawayPipeline.com for additional information.

  • Christy

    What I would like to know is how much of that 2012 Municipal use (the 47% of total use) was used to water lawns?

    • Anne Hawken

      Let’s not forget that trees are watered at the same time as the much “hated up” lawns. I thought we were trying to avoid heat islands by keeping inner city forests alive.

      • Molly Terry

        That is true but you can water your trees without watering the lawn.

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