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Bad News Expected Today for Texas Rice Farmers

Texas rice farmers near the Gulf Coast are anxiously awaiting word on whether they'll get water from the Lower Colorado River Authority for a rice crop this spring. The LCRA says the farmers' prospects are not good — which will relieve other Texans who also have a stake in the water.

Residents of Lake Travis have extended staircases and moved docks further out to accommodate lower lake levels. Some say the declining levels are bringing down property values.

Update: On Thursday morning, the LCRA reported that lake levels remained at 846,000 acre-feet, the same as the day before. That adds to the evidence that there will not be enough for the rice farmers.

Original story: For the first time in history, rice farmers are unlikely to get water for a springtime crop this year.

They'll get a definite answer from the Lower Colorado River Authority at 11:59 p.m. today, if not sooner. The formula is this: If Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan reach 850,000 acre-feet, the farmers will get up to 125,000 acre-feet of water this spring. If the lakes don't reach that level, most farmers will not get water for a spring rice crop.

"To put it mildly, I'm on pins and needles," said Tom Gardiner, who owns the Volente Boat Club on Lake Travis. He does not want the farmers to get the water, because he wants more water to stay in the lake.

The two lakes were at 846,000 acre-feet on Wednesday, having risen 4,000 acre-feet since the day before. But they are still far below normal levels for this time of year. (Check the latest levels here.)

"We do not expect to reach 850,000 acre-feet on March 1," said LCRA spokeswoman Clara Tuma on Wednesday evening.

For the farmers, who have been getting water twice yearly ever since the LCRA, which manages the lake water, was created in 1935, this represents new territory. They have never been cut off before, though it has always been a possibility.

"Here we are less than 24 hours away, thereabouts, and it's looking pretty inevitable that we are not going to get a curtailment but a total cutoff," Ronald Gertson, a Wharton County farmer, said Wednesday. 

The most intense drought in Texas history has caused levels at Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis, which are the LCRA's two key reservoirs, to fall significantly. Recent rains have increased them, though, and they are now 42 percent full, up from 37 percent full a few months ago.

Advocates for the lakes have found themselves in the odd position of hoping it won't rain too much this week so that the lakes stay below the trigger levels.

Farmers, ironically, are now dealing with fields that are now too wet to plant. Haskell Simon, a 79-year-old rice farmer in Matagorda County, said that the rice fields have been prepared for planting, but that they would need a few weeks to dry out after all the recent rain. Farmers normally plant two crops a year. This year, the first crop, if there is one, will be planted much later than usual. The new schedule could push a second crop too far back, out of the heat of the summer, to grow well, he said.

Gardiner, the boat club owner, said that sending more water to the farmers — and lowering lake levels — would mean "complete devastation" for businesses like his, which have already been suffering from low lake levels for the past year. (Rice farmers used 60 percent of the water released from Lakes Travis and Buchanan last year — far more than the city of Austin, which is among the other water users.) 

"The fact that [releasing the water] is even an option is kind of horrifying to me," Gardiner said.

One farming district, near Garwood, will still get LCRA water, even if the lakes do not reach the trigger point tonight, because of special provisions in the rules. The LCRA estimated earlier this month that the district would get up to 20,000 acre-feet from the Highland Lakes.

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