Water Proposal Could Have Direct Effect on Rice Farmers

Water levels have dropped at Lake Travis because the drought, May 16 2011.
Water levels have dropped at Lake Travis because the drought, May 16 2011.

Update: On Wednesday, the LCRA's board of directors voted to pass the water management plan for the Highland Lakes. The plan now goes to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for final approval.

Original story: 

How much water should Texas rice farmers draw from the Highland Lakes near Austin?

It's a contentious question that the Lower Colorado River Authority, which controls the lakes, is set to consider Wednesday.

A new "water management plan," 18 months in the making, could win approval from the LCRA's board. The plan would map out allocations from Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan for the next few decades, through years of rain and years of drought. Less water than before would go to the rice farmers — who get the majority of the water released from the Highland Lakes — and a greater share would go to the growing cities, like Austin and Burnet, which also rely on the lakes.

But if comments Tuesday to LCRA board members were any indication, the details of the plan remain controversial. In particular, last-minute changes upset a number of participants in the process, including those who live and work around the Highland Lakes and are concerned about falling lake levels.

"We felt like we'd kind of been left out of the loop," John Buchanan, the owner of Thunderbird Resort on Lake Buchanan, told LCRA board members Tuesday, when they held a water operations committee hearing.

The final changes are fairly technical, and even some board members struggled to understand the details. But the upshot of the plan, with or without the last-minute changes, is that in the future, rice farmers are likely to get less water from the lakes, especially during dry years. The farmers' water is categorized as "interruptible," meaning that their supply can get cut off during a drought, in contrast with cities, which must have water even during drought. However, the farmers get their water far more cheaply than cities.

Under the plan being considered Wednesday by the board, the lake levels would be assessed twice a year — not once, as is currently the case — to see if there is enough water for the farmers, who grow two rice crops a year. Another key change from existing practice is that the amount of water released to the farmers would no longer be unlimited.

Farmers and their representatives aren't especially happy. "[We're] two to three short steps from having a great water plan," Matagorda County Judge Nate McDonald said. He warned of "lopping off an industry” that supported Matagorda, Colorado and Wharton counties, and he pointed out that rice farmers were a critical force in the creation of the LCRA in 1935.

If the LCRA board approves the plan, it will go to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for final approval. And, separately, work will soon begin on yet another update to the plan, due several years hence.

The last-minute wrangling is playing out against an unexpected — and welcome — backdrop of rain and rising lake levels. In just one week, storms boosted the amount of water in Lakes Travis and Buchanan by more than 50,000 acre-feet, or 7 percent, so that the lakes are now more than two-fifths full.

The LCRA's chief meteorologist, Bob Rose, said he is "somewhat encouraged that this pattern we've been in over the next few months will continue," though he emphasized that the drought is far from over. However, he added that national forecasters are seeing signs that El Niño, a Pacific Ocean phenomenon that usually brings lots of rain for Texas, could materialize in the fall. The United States has experienced two straight years of La Niña, normally a phenomenon associated with drought in Texas.

However, the fast-rising lake levels have added an extra layer of uncertainty for those whose livelihoods depend on the LCRA. Under a drought-related emergency plan that's currently in effect, if the combined lake levels (now at 823,000 acre-feet) rise to 850,000 acre-feet by March 1 — something that seemed nearly impossible until last week's storm — a large quantity of water (125,000 acre-feet) will be released this spring for the rice farmers. If the lakes don't rise enough by March 1, most farmers dependent on the LCRA will be out of luck.

Farmers and people who live around the lakes are checking the lake levels daily. Lakeside residents fear that a huge release of water to the farmers would negate the effects of the rain.

"The rain is bad news this week," Terrel Cass, who spoke for a Spicewood group called the 9/11 Lake Crisis Group, told the board. The reason, he said, is that the condition of Lake Travis is already "horrible," and it will fall below its levels of two weeks ago if water is released for farmers.

Farmers aren't ready for the water, because, ironically, all the rain has made it hard to prepare the rice fields for a crop, said Ronald Gertson, a rice farmer from Wharton County. Also, he noted, while some farmers are eager for the water, others are already planning to get crop insurance.

Greg Meszaros, the director of the Austin Water Utility, warned against allowing the recent rains to create complacency. "We could be right back in this situation in two to three months," he said.

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