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Water Cut Off for Rice Farmers, but Some Central Texas Leaders Want More Guidance

Most rice farmers in the lower Colorado River basin won't get irrigation water deliveries from the Highland Lakes this year, but Central Texas cities still worry that drinking water supplies could be depleted.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
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The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality voted Wednesday to cut off water deliveries to most rice farmers in the Lower Colorado River Basin for the third straight year. But surprising many, the commission refused to tie its decision about whether farmers get water to the water levels in the Highland Lakes, which provide drinking water to more than 1 million Central Texans year-round and irrigation water to the rice farmers on an “interruptible” basis.

That means there is a possibility — however remote — that the Lower Colorado River Authority could deliver some irrigation water to rice farmers later this year if a significant amount of rain causes an increase in lake levels. While the LCRA says that is a near impossibility, the agency will once again have to ask the TCEQ for permission to cut off farmers' water in another four months. Local officials in Central Texas say the lack of clarity raises concerns about the security of their drinking water supply.

“It’s just kicking the can down the road,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin. “It just means that we have to be in the continual, perpetual state of emergency.”

No one, not even the rice farmers, disagreed that farmers should not receive interruptible water deliveries this spring from the lakes, which are currently only 38 percent full. On a normal year, the Lower Colorado River Authority could release more than 200,000 acre-feet to irrigation customers downstream starting in March, when the growing season for rice begins. That’s nearly 10 percent of the lakes’ total capacity, and such a release now would cripple drinking water supplies for Central Texas.

But Howard said TCEQ needed to provide further guidance to the LCRA, rather than just approving a one-time cut-off. In refusing to allow further cutoffs based on actual lake levels, she said the agency “disregards the LCRA staff, the LCRA board, the administrative law judge, the firm customers. … All these folks who said, we need to have some thoughtful, evidence-based guidance.” She said that local officials will have the same worries about potential water supplies again in four months, when the LCRA would have to seek TCEQ's approval again to curtail water supplies to farmers for the second rice crop, which begins in July. 

The decision of Chairman Bryan Shaw and commissioner Toby Baker bucked the recommendations of the LCRA, two administrative law judges, Central Texas officials, and the TCEQ's executive director, Richard Hyde. (The third TCEQ commissioner, Zak Covar, who was previously the agency's executive director, recused himself from the decision.)

All had proposed that the LCRA only release water supplies for irrigation if the lakes reached levels of at least 53 percent. Administrative law Judges William Newchurch and Travis Vickery said that even that level threatened the security of Central Texas’ drinking water supplies, and they suggested that the lakes should be 70 percent full before water was released to farmers.

Rice farmers downstream recommended that the trigger level be scrapped altogether, because they said it sets a dangerous precedent — and because the question of rising levels is moot. The only way for lakes to even reach the lower proposed trigger level of 53 percent in time for rice season would be for rain to add a whopping 110 billion gallons of water by Saturday.

Shaw and Baker agreed. “What purpose does it serve for us to set a trigger point today that we know has no impact for the time being?” Shaw said.

But Central Texas cities say that lake levels have swung wildly in recent years. For instance, the lakes were close to half full in May 2012. Just 16 months later, they had dropped to less than one-third of their capacity — and that was a year when almost all rice farmers had been cut off from irrigation water. (Farmers in the Garwood Irrigation District still get water deliveries from LCRA during cut-off times, because they have a special contract.)

Some also fear that if major floods occur between now and July, when the second rice crop season begins, the lakes may rise enough levels that the LCRA will release irrigation water downstream — and then the lakes would drop precipitously again.

But Ronald Gertson, a fourth-generation rice farmer in Wharton County, said that’s impossible.

“If you don’t have a first crop, you’re not going to have a second crop,” he said, explaining that the second rice crop regrows from the same root system as the first. So if rice farmers don’t have any water in March, they won’t plant at all.

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