Rice farmers may battle another dry season

By by Dianna Wray - DWRAY@VICAD.COM
Nov. 17, 2012 at 5:17 a.m.

A large flock of birds moves across a rice field like a dark cloud darting in and out of the sky.

A large flock of birds moves across a rice field like a dark cloud darting in and out of the sky.   Frank Tilley for The Victoria Advocate

LISSIE - The rice fields are empty right now, just soft cocoa-colored earth, but next spring, the fields will be filled with green stalks of rice plants - if the rice farmers get the water to grow their crops.

Last week, the Lower Colorado River Authority voted to approve a plan that may keep the water from flowing down to the ricelands.

Ronald Gertson is president of the Colorado Water Issues Committee, a group formed in 2009 to lobby the LCRA for water for the coastal ricelands.

"It's important for us to have a unified voice," he said. "We felt it necessary to get organized so that we could react."

Gertson was born into a family of rice farmers. He was driving a tractor at 9 years old, and it seemed like the natural choice for Gertson and his brothers to join their father in the family business after graduating from college.

Growing up on the farm, he never thought water would be an issue.

"Thirty-five years ago, we weren't talking about water availability. It was a given," Gertson said.

The water needs of cities and industry have grown, placing them in direct competition with those in agriculture further down the river, he said.

"Water is going to be huge from now on," he said. "Even if we return to normal conditions, it will continue to be an issue."

Rice farmers along the Colorado River have depended on the river to provide water used to grow their crops since the 19th century.

Last year - for the first time in history - the Lower Colorado River Authority failed to send the water downstream that rice farmers have used for generations to grow their crops. The state was in the worst single year drought in its history, and releasing water levels in the Highland Lakes were at record lows.

After honoring their contract with the rice farmers the year before, the LCRA didn't release the water, and the rice farmers were left without access to the water that is essential to growing their crops.

Now, the LCRA has announced another emergency management plan that will be submitted to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The plan is less stringent than the one from the year before, but rice farmers may find themselves without any water for their fields for the second year in a row.

"This drought that has plagued our region continues," said LCRA Board Chairman Timothy Timmerman. "Some of our inflows into the Highland Lakes have been lower than we saw during the worst drought this region has even seen, which is known as the drought of record. This plan isn't perfect, but it's the best we could come up with."

The Texas rice industry has seen changes since then. Gertson watched as a boom in the 1970s led to a bust that drove many longtime farmers out of the business.

Then in the 1990s, landlords found that the government would pay them more money if their land was empty than they would get for renting it, so they stopped leasing their land, and more rice farmers left the business, Gertson said.

"There were a number of very low times that culled the numbers out over the years," Gertson said.

Decades ago, more than 600,000 acres of rice was growing in Texas. Now, between 150,000 and 200,000 acres of rice are planted per year, Gertson said.

The interests of rice farmers and the Highland Lakes communities have been on a collision course for years, Gertson said.

The LCRA developed a water management plan in 1989. The plan gave firm water rights to municipal and industrial interests, and the rice farmers were given interruptible rights, meaning their water could be withheld when necessary for the interests of those upstream.

While the rice farmers accepted the LCRA ruling last year, Gertson said they were concerned when they learned that the water may be kept upstream again. Last year, farmers waited for crop insurance checks, and no one was sure they were going to receive the money until the checks arrived in their mailboxes. The wait will be even more stressful this year because the federal government has rules in place that make it hard to file claims for the same cause, Gertson said.

Another year without water would also impact the businesses built around the rice crop from storage to crop dusting. Crop insurance doesn't cover the loss of revenue in those businesses, Gertson said.

"If we don't get water this year, we will have a number of businesses that will close down and not be able to reopen," he said.

Under the guidelines approved by the LCRA last week, farmers will get enough water for about half the rice fields for the first crop in Wharton, Matagorda and Colorado counties, and won't receive any water for a second crop, according to a news release issued by Ducks Unlimited, a nonprofit organization.

The LCRA had a meeting before making its decision last week, and Ducks Unlimited biologist Kirby Brown noted that the lack of a rice crop will also hurt the migratory waterfowl that are dependent on the ricelands for nesting, migration and winter habitat.

"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," Brown said.

For now, Gertson said he is trying to stay optimistic about the situation. He and the other committee members attended and spoke at the LCRA hearing and meeting last week where board members heard from the public and then voted on the plan.

He looks for invitations to address community groups in the Highland Lakes area to put a face on the farmers down the river who are vying for the same water that the communities are. He hopes to help the people upriver understand what he and the rice farmers he represents have at stake - the loss of their way of life.

His son joined the family business, and Gertson hopes that his 13-month-old grandson will have the opportunity to be a part of the legacy one day. The day may come when rice farming won't be a viable way to make a living, he acknowledged.

"If that becomes the reality, we'll deal with it, but what I don't want is for that to be forced on us for no good reason but to keep lake levels up at recreational levels," he said.



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