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LCRA to withhold water from rice farmers again unless Highland Lakes rise

Jan. 13, 2013 at 9:04 p.m.
Updated Jan. 12, 2013 at 7:13 p.m.

Rice fields full of snow geese were harder to find this season due to water restrictions on rice farmers that resulted in less rice acreage on the Texas coast. Unless rains swell the Highland Lakes in the next six weeks, expect even less rice grown in 2013.

It was wet this week, but apparently not wet enough.

Lower Colorado River Authority's Board of Directors, noting the record-breaking drought conditions gripping the region, has agreed that Highland Lakes water should be withheld from most farmers this year if water supply conditions don't improve by March 1.

That is not good news for rice farmers and business' tied to agriculture in Colorado, Wharton and Matagorda counties, nor fall and winter waterfowl that make the Texas rice prairie their home for half of their life.

"We realize that water allocation decisions are challenging and that compromises have to be made," said Kirby Brown, conservation outreach biologist for Duck Unlimited. "However, Ducks Unlimited feels very strongly that the needs of waterfowl and wetland wildlife in the rice prairie wetlands complex must be voiced and evaluated along with other stakeholder interests. There are significant economic impacts tied to rice agriculture and waterfowl hunting, as well as natural resource and cultural heritage considerations."

Approximately 60 percent of the estimated 1.96 million midwinter bird population for the Texas Mid-Coast is expected to rely on ricelands (active and idle flooded rice fields )to meet their food needs.

For every 10,000 acres of flooded ricelands lost, the region loses the ability to support 120,000 waterfowl.

The amount of water flowing into the Highland Lakes, called inflows, was the lowest on record in 2011, and the fifth lowest on record in 2012. In fact, five of the 10 lowest years on record for inflows have occurred since 2006.

Lakes Travis and Buchanan, the region's water supply reservoirs, currently are about 41 percent full, holding about 834,865 acre-feet of water, even after two days of soaking rains this week..

The drought relief LCRA is seeking is similar to the relief TCEQ granted in 2011 that led to most downstream farmers going without Highland Lakes water in 2012. If approved, the new drought relief would cut off Highland Lakes water to most farmers unless the combined storage of lakes Buchanan and Travis is at or above 850,000 acre-feet at 11:59 p.m. on March 1, 2013.

The requested relief works as follows:

  1. Provide no stored water to farmers in Gulf Coast and Lakeside irrigation divisions if the combined storage is below 850,000 acre-feet;

  2. Provide up to 121,500 acre-feet of stored water for irrigation if the combined storage is between 850,000 acre-feet and 920,000 acre-feet on March 1; or

  3. Provide stored water in accordance with the current Water Management Plan if the combined storage is at or above 920,000 acre-feet on March 1.

If combined storage on March 1 is at or above 920,000 acre-feet, any stored water that is made available for first crop under the current Water Management Plan and is unused could be available for second crop. If combined storage on March 1 is between 850,000 acre-feet and 920,000 acre-feet, a limited amount of water would be provided for second crop only if storage on July 1 is at or above 950,000 acre-feet.

Ducks Unlimited, hunters and farmers remain concerned about the overall decrease in rice acreage and the predicted absence of second crop rice.

Because of the timing of seed maturation, second crop rice is particularly important for migratory waterfowl.

In terms of food needed to support wintering waterfowl in the Texas Mid-Coast agricultural landscape, second crop rice provides at least 10 times as much as first crop rice.

"This is the last intact rice prairie wetland complex of its size remaining in Texas, and the Colorado River is a critical migration landmark running right through the middle of it. I cannot overstate the importance of this area for waterfowl and wetland wildlife," said Brown.

In the meantime, keep praying for rain, especially north of Austin.

Bink Grimes is a freelance writer, photographer, author and licensed captain (binkgrimes@sbcglobal.net).

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