At a board meeting on Wednesday, the Lower Colorado River Authority approved an emergency plan that could cut off water supplies to downriver rice farmers entirely next year if the drought worsens.
The plan, which still needs to be approved by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, means that rice farmers — who require a huge amount of water for irrigation and have always gotten enough for two crops a year — may be lucky if they get enough water for one crop, let alone their usual two.
The amount of water in Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis, the two reservoirs used by the LCRA to supply water to the farmers as well as Central Texas cities like Austin, have fallen to 789,000 acre-feet — less than half their long-term average of 1.6 million acre-feet. The LCRA has said that it fears that by the end of the year lake levels could fall to nearly the 621,000-foot all-time low occasioned by the 1950s drought, still considered the worst drought in Texas history.
"This puts the rice industry on sort of a life-support system," said Chris King, a commissioner in rice-heavy Wharton County, in remarks to the board. The future, he added, is in God's hands.
King noted that not only will rice farmers themselves be hit, but also the industries (like farm equipment sellers) that support them. Farmers, he noted, may have crop insurance, but the drought "could spell the end of the road for all the support industries."
Under the emergency plan, rice farmers must wait until March 1 (two months later than usual) to know if they will get water for a first crop or not. If lake levels are at or below current levels, they will get no water; if they are slightly higher (850,000 acre-feet to 920,000 acre-feet), a maximum of 145,000 acre-feet will be released from the lakes to support a crop.
That's less than usual: This year over 435,000 acre-feet of water have been released for the farmers' two crops. Austin, by contrast, used 164,000 acre-feet in 2009.
Even if lake levels rebound to support a first crop, there will be no second crop next year without the LCRA board's approval.
Rice farmers, lake residents, cities and the LCRA crafted this plan last night, in an emergency session praised by all sides for achieving rapid results.
But lakeside residents remain distraught as lake levels drop — which right now they are doing especially fast because of both the lack of rainfall and water releases to rice farmers that will go on until mid-October. "It's embarrassing," one resident of Lake Buchanan told the board, adding, "It's Texas water ... we've got to preserve it."
Rice farmers and their advocates say the drought — which is forecast to continue through the fall — increases the need for construction of reservoirs down-river, which should reduce reliance on the Highland Lakes. "We'd damn sure better build these reservoirs," said Steve Balas, a board member — and rice farmer — from Colorado County.