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Water is essential to rice farming

By adriana_acosta
Oct. 1, 2010 at 5:01 a.m.

Miles of canals snake through Matagorda County providing waterways to rice farms, which depend on water to grow the grain.

Editor's Note: This is the second of an ongoing series taking a look at the rice industry in Matagorda County.

BAY CITY - A bloodline flows through Matagorda County.

No, it's not just generations of families, but 300 miles of canals that keep the heart of the county beating.

Water flows through the canals that feed the land in abundance, helping the growth of a new beginning - the first crop of rice each year.

Rice farmers understand the importance of water.

The water provided by the Lower Colorado River Authority has won the respect of many farmers like Haskell Simon, who has devoted most of his life to keeping the bloodline of water flowing.

"Water is an important part of life in this area," he said. "Without it, our industry would not exist."

It is the economic life blood, he said.

Simon has farmed about 100 acres with his business partner Billy Mann since 1980.

He owns one of the smaller rice farms in the area, he said, but understands the importance of water.

Simon has dedicated countless volunteer hours to water issues and water boards for the county.

Simon is part of the LCRA 2010 Water Management Plant advisory committee, which will spend the year working to provide input on how to improve water management strategies and address needs in the basin, including those of cities, industry, agriculture and the environment for the Lower Colorado River Authority.

Flowing water to county

Having water each rice season is an essential part of farming and obtaining a water contract from the river authority is important.

In Matagorda County, the industry brings in about $25 million directly from the sale of rice.

The LCRA makes about $5.5 million from the sale of water - $3.8 million from agriculture and $1.7 million from industries.

The river authority provides water from the Highland Lakes to customers with annual contracts.

"Nearly all the water used by farmers in Matagorda County is provided by us," said Robert Cullick, spokesperson for the Lower Colorado River Authority.

Their contracts depend on the amount of rice they want to grow, said Kyle Jensen, manager of water operations for LCRA.

In 2009, agriculture in Matagorda County used roughly 198,000 acre-feet of water for irrigation. That number jumps to almost 275,000 acre-feet or 31 percent of LCRA's service when industrial uses are added, he said.

An acre-foot of water is enough water to cover an acre in a foot of water, or enough water to provide a family of five with water for a year. It is 325,851 gallons.

Power plants like South Texas Project Electric Generating Station have a long-term contract with LCRA, allowing the company to divert up to 102,000 acre-feet of water annually from the Colorado River to replace water used in plant cooling.

This allows for run-of-the-river water usage.

In the past 20 years, the nuclear plant has not requested firm water from the river authority. This is due in part to its 7,000 acre reservoir that provides and recycles water.

The plant actually diverted 72,646 acre-feet from the Colorado River to the Main Cooling Reservoir in 2009, said Buddy Eller, director of communication for South Texas Project.

"It is important to note that the nuclear plant diversion followed a drought which started in 2008," he added.

Farmers faced a near cutback in 2009, when an extreme drought impacted rice farmers.

The drought was compared to the drought of record, a decade-long drought from 1947 and 1957.

Last year the Highland Lakes were at 42 percent capacity after 20 months of an as intense drought the region had ever seen.

Lake levels were being predicted to be below a trigger point, which meant a cut off of water to downstream farmers in the Matagorda, Wharton and Colorado counties.

"Thanks to heavy rain there was no need for curtailment," said Simon.

Heavy rains last year were enough to replenish the lakes and the region's water supply.

"It is a challenge," he said. "Because we have to share water and we must learn how to use it wisely."

Water is the economic lifeblood of the county, said Simon.

River runs through

When rice farming began in the county more than 100 years ago, farmers used water from the Colorado River.

Rice farmers used manual labor that included mules and horses to carry the water for farming.

Because farming was easily wiped out by flooding, Simon said by the 1930s, the Highland Lakes were created and the LCRA was created.

The river authority was also created for the conservation of water, he said.

When it is time to get the water to the farmers, Jensen said, it takes seven days for the water to flow from the Miller dam to the Bay City pumping facility.

Because so many canals are involved in the transportation of water, it may take an additional three days for the water to arrive at the end of the canal system.

Once the water reaches its destination, water is released from the levees that hold the water.

For an average 300-acre rice field, it may take about a week for fields to flood the required two to four inches.

Streaming to the future

The Lower Colorado River Authority has kicked off the process of updating the Water Management Plan, which includes management strategies to address needs in the basin, including those of agriculture and the environment.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality gave the LCRA three years to complete the update. So far, the LCRA's board of directors proposed a shorter timeline to complete the process.

The Water Management Plant governs the operation of the Highland Lakes to meet the needs of major water users throughout the river basin. The plan prescribes how to allocate water during water supply shortages.

During a severe drought, the plant directs for a cutback of interruptible water supplies so that water will be available for basic.

"We have never interrupted rice farmer water, but we know, the more there are firm demands on the river, the more likely there is that farmers will be interrupted," Cullick said.

Demand for water is good for the next 25 years, he said.

A plan has been developed to move forward and make sure there will be adequate water 100 years from now, he said.

The challenge now is to find a balance on how to develop additional water plans for the use of agricultural needs and industrial needs, he said.

"Water is essential, it is important for the growth of the county," Simon said.

"Conservation is the key element for providing for the future of our water," he said. "It is our liquid gold."

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