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Beneficial rains raise reservoir levels but LCRA set to limit water use

Late February rain could be too little too late for rice growers. Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) is set to implement a new water management plan beginning as early as March 1. Farmers say they have always had priority water rights on water from the river.

Since it is a Leap Year there is an extra day in February in 2012, a one day extension of the month that happens every fourth year to helps scientists and scholars correctly calculate the movement of the Earth as it makes its perpetual path around the Sun.

The extra day this year represents another day of hope for rain by Texas rice growers who say only a Central Texas downpour this week could give them reason to hope the 2012 crop year isn’t a total bust.

Beginning March 1, LCRA will be operating under an emergencydrought relief plan approved by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ)that stops farmers from taking water from the Colorado River for rice irrigation if lake levels are below 850,000 square-acre feet. As of Feb. 27, the level was holding steady at 844,000 square-acre feet, and unless the skies open up over Central Texas on Feb.29, farmers face not only the emergency drought relief plan March 1 but the possibility of permanent restrictions imposed once a new water management plan approved by LCRA Board members last week gets state approval.

Rice farmers in Wharton, Matagorda and Colorado Counties, the largest rice growing area in the state and one that produces about five-percent of all U.S. rice, are affected by both the emergency plan and the new water management plan once it is put into place.

New Plan

The new water management plan got the nod last week after a year and half controversy that pitted the rice industry against urban communities in a fight over water rights and management. The LCRA Board brought to a close the latest chapter of the issue when they voted 10-5 in favor of the measure.

“Farmers have been using more water than we use to support the population of Austin, so I think the new water plan is a good one to make certain we can meet the growing needs of the people that live here,” says Jason Hill with Austin’s water department.

During the peak of the current drought last summer and fall lake levels had fallen to historic lows, pressuring businesses and communities around the lakes with economic hardships as lake visitors dwindled. Even the City of Austin is lauding the new plan as a “needed and effective way” to secure water rights for not just rice farmers downstream, but for everyone.”

But farmers say they have always had priority water rights on water from the river ever since the Central Texas dams were first built, and that with limitations posed by the new management plan, they won’t be able to depend on water for a 2012 crop.

“I’ve been farming this area for 60 years and this is the first time anyone has ever tried to shut the water off,” says Matagorda County Harley Savage of Triangle Farms, who farms about 2,500 acres of rice near Bay City. “People don’t realize or have forgotten that the Highland lakes were built for flood control and not for recreation. Now LCRA wants to keep the lakes full of water so people can use their sailboats. But when the heavy rains do come, we’re going to have flooding problems downstream again once they open the flood gates.”

Bad Timing

Savage and other farmers in the three county region say LCRA’s new water management plan couldn’t have come at a worse time. Not only has the drought threatened the livelihoods of farmers, but it comes at a time when efforts to reopen rice trade with Cuba is making headway in Washington.

“Years ago most of the rice from this area was sold to Cuba, and if that becomes a realty again in the near future, it would mean a return to better days for Texas rice production—if  we can get the water to grow our crops,” he added.

Under the new plan the LCRA will look at water levels in January and June each year to gauge whether farmers can take water from the river. Even if levels allow it, producers will be limited to taking 273,500 acre-feet of water a year.

If there is a bright side to the story it is that helpful rains fell in January and February. Just over a month ago the lake levels stood at 761,000 square-acre feet, picking up just over 80,000 square-acre feet in about a month. While more and substantial rain is needed to raise the level over the marginal 850,000 square-acre feet needed to release water to farmers, forecasters are expressing a degree of optimism that the worst of the drought may have passed and say rainfall rates in spring and summer may be up to the annual average.

“We’re seeing the first signs of a weakening La Nina, the event that has caused the drought, and I think we will see a return to more normal rainfall amounts by April and May, and certainly by the summer,” says LCRA meteorologist Bob Rose. “I am more optimistic now that normal periods of rain trending toward our usual annual average should return in the months ahead, bringing us some relief from the historic drought.”

Rose says by late summer Texas may see the return of an El Nino weather pattern, a shift in the atmosphere that normally brings more rain than normal.

“For the immediate future I think March rains will be below average, but winter rains have helped to bring up levels in the lakes and reservoirs and good rains in spring and summer could be the very thing we need to escape drought conditions we have experienced over the last year.”

In the interim, rice farmers are looking at what they can do to cut costs and make it through what's clearly going to be a hard year. Many say they will do well to plant 45 percent of their normal crop. Others are sifting through insurance papers hoping to salvage what they can in anticipation of bad year.

But unless substantial rains come soon, Texas rice acres could be down by as much as 40 to 60 percent this year, a number farmers say could be devastating to their operations, especially when LCRA puts the new water management plan into action.

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