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Rice farmers face upstream battle (w/video)

By Sara Sneath
May 21, 2014 at 12:21 a.m.

Rice Belt Warehouse in El Campo is one of five facilities that stores  rice harvested by area farmers. Reductions of  the release of water from the Highland Lakes combined with several years of drought have hampered crop production in the area.

WATER FLOW

From 2008 to 2013, total flows into the Highland Lakes were 33 percent of the historical average. This is the lowest total in flows for any six-year period since the completion of Mansfield Dam, which formed Lake Travis, in 1942.

SOURCE: Lower Colorado River Authority

Farmers in Colorado, Wharton and Matagorda counties have depended on water from the Colorado River to irrigate their crops for generations.

The light soil in southeast Texas has a high clay content, limiting the variety of crops that can be grown.

But with irrigation from the Colorado River and upstream reservoirs built in the 1940s, rice has become a staple in Colorado, Wharton and Matagorda counties.

Dick Ottis, the president of Rice Belt Warehouse Inc. based in El Campo, is a third-generation Texas rice farmer. His grandfather moved to Wadsworth, a small community south of Bay City, in 1910 and with his family built the second commercial rice dryer in Texas in 1943.

"It's not just the rice. It's the people you work with. The producers, the farmers - they are good people. They are fair and honest people, and I just enjoy working with them because their word is their bond," Ottis said.

Population growth and six years of drought have pitted the needs of upriver municipalities with downriver agriculture.

Though the Highland Lakes - which refers to the reservoirs west of Austin, including Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis - have provided a source of water for farmers for decades, downriver farmers have been cut off from the reservoirs for the past three years. And last week, the state environmental agency proposed changes to the Lower Colorado River Authority's water management plan that would cut farmers off to more water in the future.

"I'm not real happy with the way that the upper basin has dealt with this. I certainly want them to have water to survive," Ottis said. "What they're getting ready to do is showing a lack of concern for people in the lower basin."

In 2011, the stream flows into the Highland Lakes were the lowest on record. That same year, agricultural water users absorbed 61 percent of all water used from the Highland Lakes, or 433,251 acre feet.

Whereas agriculture was the biggest water user in 2011, municipal use has since taken the lion's share.

Farmers in Colorado, Wharton and Matagorda counties have been forced to drill water wells, find ways to make their crops more water efficient, and in some cases, replace rice with corn or other crops.

"The people who drill water wells have been very busy the last couple of years. This, in my mind, is a temporary solution to the problem," Ottis said. "We're going to keep pushing those straws into our aquifer and exhaust the resource."

Replacing rice with corn has also meant cutting down on employees because rice is a more labor-intensive crop to dry than corn. Ottis has had to lay off 20 percent of his employees, he said.

"I've had to let go of some people, and that's been devastating to me," Ottis said. "If we don't get the water soon, there might be more of that going on."

Under the proposed measures, the Lower Colorado River Authority would cut off downstream agricultural water when lakes Buchanan and Travis fall below 45 percent capacity. The reservoirs are 35 percent full - 2 percent lower than the lowest point in 2011. Full capacity for the lakes is 2.01 million acre-feet of water.

The river authority will review the state's proposal during the next two to three months, wrote Bill Lauderback, Lower Colorado River Authority executive vice president for public affairs, in a prepared statement.

By late summer, the state will provide its final recommendation and give an opportunity for the public to comment or request a hearing in the fall.

"I certainly think that farmers are not only essential for employment but also for food. I certainly understand the curtailing of the water, but I think it should be shared," Ottis said. "I guess I do a lot of praying the Lord will send some rain up there. Until then, we will have to suffer through this thing."

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