Gulf Coast rice farmers who have gone three years without water supplies from Central Texas' Highland Lakes could be in store for many more dry years, even if the current drought conditions improve.
In the midst of an increasingly tense battle between urban and rural water users of the lower Colorado River, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality issued new recommendations on Friday that would make it considerably more difficult for the farmers to receive water for their crops during times of drought and even under normal conditions. The state agency's proposal to the Lower Colorado River Authority, which oversees use of the river water, is sure to draw fire from farmers but is already getting praise from others who say the water needs of Central Texas residents must be a higher priority.
"As you can appreciate, the current persistent drought has caused us all to re-examine water management paradigms and take a new look at standard practices that worked well in the past," the TCEQ's executive director, Richard Hyde, wrote to the river authority's new general manager, Phil Wilson.
In other words, the LCRA's proposed plan for managing the lower Colorado River basin — relied upon by more than a million Central Texas residents and rice farmers downstream — isn't good enough. According to the TCEQ recommendations, LCRA's plan doesn't cut off water to rice farmers soon enough, putting at risk the water supplies for upstream cities and manufacturers. In the future, the TCEQ said, the Highland Lakes should have much more water in them before the river authority delivers water to farmers.
Farmers pay the LCRA a discounted rate for "interruptible" water, which means their water deliveries can be reduced or stopped during droughts. Cities pay a much higher rate for guaranteed water. Currently, the LCRA is operating under a temporary plan that allows farmers to receive water if the lakes are about 40 percent full. Today, the lakes are 36 percent full.
Responding to the TCEQ recommendation on Monday, the LCRA said it would "conduct a thorough analysis of the material over the next two to three months."
Hyde proposed a "significantly modified" plan that assumes more dire conditions for the Colorado River in the coming decades. The recommendations define various conditions under which the LCRA could supply water to farmers: "extraordinary," "less severe" or "normal."
In an "extraordinary" drought, rice farmers would receive no water from the Highland Lakes if they are less than 70 percent full. A drought would be considered extraordinary if more than 24 months had passed since the lakes were "completely full," a condition sure to be controversial among agricultural and environmental interests.
“That is not extraordinary drought," said Ronald Gertson, a rice farmer in Wharton County who is a regular at public hearings and stakeholder meetings on the issue. "That is quite normal, and occurs more often than not. Even in history before this more recent drought, it was not at all unusual to be more than 24 months since the Highland Lakes were filled.”
Even under "normal" conditions," in the TCEQ proposal, it would be harder for rice farmers to get water, because the trigger level that would allow for irrigation releases would be higher.
TCEQ's proposal is sure to be a contentious issue for the river authority's board. It is made up of members from Central Texas and from Gulf Coast counties. They have clashed over setting trigger levels that the Highland Lakes must reach before allowing release to rice farmers.
State legislators whose districts include cities in Central Texas agreed with the TCEQ, arguing that drinking water supplies for more than a million people are at risk. Several towns in the area take water directly from Lakes Travis and Buchanan, which have become so low that the towns have had to spend millions of dollars to lower their pipes.
"It appears that the professionals at TCEQ get it," state Sens. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, and Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said in a joint statement. "It's critical that the LCRA seize this opportunity to correct past mistakes."
They added, "It's amazing what can happen when experts who aren't influenced by a particular interest get the chance to weigh in." The statement was a veiled swipe at LCRA board members and staff, who have been accused of putting the interests of Gulf Coast-area rice farmers ahead of cities and residents around the Highland Lakes.
The LCRA has maintained that it is simply following the current water management plan, which TCEQ approved in 2010.
After getting the LCRA's input, the TCEQ's executive director plans to finalize his recommendations by late summer. The public will then have the opportunity to submit comments.