South Texas rice farmers get half of water they need

Sept. 21, 2011 at 4:21 a.m.

AUSTIN - Rice farmers in Matagorda County can breathe a sigh of relief, at least until the planting of the second crop next year.

On Wednesday, the Lower Colorado River Authority board passed a resolution regarding the drought management plan that will provide rice farmers with water for 2012 rice production - if it rains significantly.

"We got what we wanted," said Paul Sliva, a third-generation rice farmer in Matagorda County.

The initial proposal would have halted water releases based on reserve levels on Jan. 1.

Sliva said the new recommendations are a financial hit to rice farmers, but it will keep them afloat for one year.

"It is not going to be easy with these lower amounts of water, but I think we will be able to make it through that year," he said.

Rice farmers will get half of the water they currently get, he said.

"This is enough water to guarantee us a first crop," he said.

Under the emergency order, which would apply to about 170 farmers, the river authority would cut off water only if the reserves in reservoirs fall below 850,000 acre-feet on March 1. The compromise pushes back the trigger date by two months, allowing more time for rain or backup plans.

The reduction came after new projections showed the combined storage of Travis and Buchanan lakes could drop to record low levels.

The Colorado River basin is experiencing its worst drought on record. The past 11 months have been the driest in state history with more than 99 percent of the state in drought and more than 75 percent of the state in severe drought or worse.

The affected farmers are in the state's three biggest rice-producing counties - Matagorda, Wharton and Colorado. Texas produces about 170,000 acres of rice each year, about 5 percent of the nation's total.

"This puts the rice industry on a life support system and if anyone's going to pull the plug, I guess it's going to be God," said Wharton County Commissioner Chris King.

The proposal has pitted the South Texas farmers against several Central Texas communities upstream, including Austin, that depend on the reservoirs for drinking and other utilities.

"We have no other source of water," said Greg Meszaros, director of the Austin Water Utility.

The 862-mile long Colorado River starts near the Texas Panhandle and flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Near the river's middle, water is stored in manmade reservoirs, known as the Highland Lakes. The lakes are used as the primary source of water for Central Texas communities as well as for power generation, recreation and irrigation.

For irrigation, the river flows hundreds of miles downstream, into tributaries and manmade canals spread across farmland, where landowners have agreements with the LCRA. The river authority typically releases reservoir water to about 250 downstream farmers from a series of dams in Central Texas. About 170 of them are subject to being cut off because of terms in their contracts. Under the agreement approved Wednesday, no water will be released from the dams until April 1.

"The great thing about this agreement is that the stakeholders came to this consensus and see what agreement they would come to on their own," said Scott Spears, LCRA board of director and water operations chairman.

The next step is for the LCRA to take the resolution to the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality for approval, he said.

"You have to make a determination so that you can give to the people what they need to survive," he said.

The rice farmers have been lucky up to this point, he said.

David Schroeder, executive director of the Wharton County Economic Development Corp., said a move to cut off water would be catastrophic to the region's economy, including farmers, their equipment suppliers and the production companies that depend on them.

"Jobs are going to be lost, second crops aren't going to be able to be done," Schroeder said. "Farms may shut down and prices may go up. This is how important it is for our community to have water."

Sliva said he will be able to plant about 40 percent of the rice he normally does.

"Let's just hope it rains so that we can all get the water that we need," he said.



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