Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas


All About Rice Farming in Texas


When Did Rice Farming Begin in Texas?

Rice farming in Texas can trace it origins to 1685, when rice first came to the US from Madagascar, according to the Texas State Historical Association. “Although there was early domestic cultivation of rice in Louisiana and Texas,” they write on their website, “commercial rice production began in Louisiana shortly before the Civil War and in the 1880s spread rapidly through the coastal prairies of southwest Louisiana into southeast Texas.”

According to the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), which manages the river that provides water to the farmers, “coastal rice farmers began using the waters of the Colorado River in the 19th century, more than 40 years before the Highland Lakes were created.” More from the LCRA:

“Texas usually ranks as the nation’s fourth or fifth highest producing rice-growing state, producing about 7 percent of the nation’s supply. Most Texas rice is grown near the Colorado River in Colorado, Wharton and Matagorda counties. Texas rice farmers count on this water to irrigate land along the Gulf Coast. In addition to rice farmers, customers include a significant number of row-crop farmers, turf grass growers, industries and commercial operations.”

Why Do Rice Farmers Get the Water?

The LCRA has outlined two reasons why they are responsible to the rice farmers:

  • “Texas law declares that the state must give preference to certain types of water uses when granting water rights. LCRA’s practice of giving preference to downstream rice farmers when distributing interruptible stored water — a water supply that is curtailed during water shortages — is consistent with the Texas Legislature’s directive. The contracts for this water are negotiated during development of the LCRA Water Management Plan, which is subject to state approval.”
  • “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.”

Water Wars

In recent years, the LCRA has been in the middle of a water dispute between the rice farmers and communities near the Highland Lakes. The LCRA has since proposed a new water management plan that will change how much water goes from the Highland Lakes to customers downstream. In essence, the plan means more water for the lakes and less for the farmers. On February 22, 2012, the LCRA voted in favor of the plan with ten in favor and five against. It is now going to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) for approval.

Water Cut Off in 2012

Texas rice farmers that rely on the Lower Colorado were mostly cut off from its water in 2012. Under an emergency water plan adopted by the LCRA in late September in response to the drought, the combined storage of Lakes Buchanan and Travis had to be at 850,000 acre-feet by midnight on the night of March 1st in order for water to be sent downstream. It fell just short of that, and therefore most of the rice farmers in Southeast Texas went without a crop in 2012. Insurance will cover their losses, but many ancillary industries have suffered.

Looming Shortages in 2013

The latest recommendation by the Lower Colorado River Authority is to adopt another emergency drought plan for 2013 that would result in less water for rice farmers than under a normal plan. That will come up for discussion at a meeting of the agency’s board in mid-November.

Latest Posts

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

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 […]

State Tells River Authority Water Plan Needs More Review

In the ongoing battle over water in the Highland Lakes of Central Texas, the City of Austin and lake residents and businesses scored something of a victory this week when the state told the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) that its water management plan will need more review. The LCRA manages the water in the […]

How New Texas Water Supplies Could Help Both Farmers and Cities

For the rice farmers of Southeast Texas, 2012 was a rough year. For the first time in history, they were cut off from water because there wasn’t enough in the main reservoirs of the Lower Colorado River to supply them. In 2013, they face the same situation: if there isn’t enough water in the Highland […]

What Are ‘Environmental Flows’ And How Does Texas Protect Them?

Even if the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) doesn’t send water downstream to rice farmers this year, the Colorado River will still flow. Without that constant flow, the river would dry up, destroying and inland ecosystems and the brackish estuary near the coast. But how much water should be sent downriver to maintain the ecosystem? That’s […]

LCRA Approves Plan That Will Likely Cut Off Rice Farmers This Year

In a unanimous vote today, the Board of Directors at the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) approved an emergency plan that could cut off water for most rice farmers downstream in order to protect supplies for the City of Austin. The plan is identical to the one that last year resulted in rice farmers being […]

Central Texas Water Conflict Heats Up Again

Mark Dewey of KUT News contributed reporting. Two high-profile Texas legislators have put the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) on notice this week: if you send water downstream to rice farmers in 2013, there will be consequences. In a letter to the LCRA, Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Troy Fraser, R-Abilene, urge the LCRA to withdraw the emergency […]

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