Hunters set sights on harvesting future water
Jan. 2, 2015 at 10:39 p.m.
Updated Jan. 2, 2015 at 10:47 p.m.
BAY CITY - Randy Triplett trudges through boot-sucking mud in pre-dawn hours setting up hundreds of goose decoys. The sound of birds squawking at a roost pond nearby keeps Triplett moving, driving wire rods with wind socks resembling snow geese into a flooded rice field.
With decoys in place, Triplett and a group of about a dozen hunters lay up against a levee, their wader laden feet submerged in water, waiting for geese to appear through the fog.
Snow geese, smart, easily spooked birds, aren't trophy animals. For the 100,000-or-so duck hunters in Texas, red-eyes, wind-chapped cheeks and the promise of a warm meal are the true prizes of a sleep-deprived morning on the prairie.
"It's just in your blood somewhere. It's just something that's inside you that makes you want to do it," Triplett said. "It's a dying art."
Triplett has guided goose hunts for more than 30 years. Geese migrating to the region have traditionally found welcoming duck ponds and rice fields to feed on. But rice farmers and duck guides who have come to depend on water from the Colorado River, which has fed fields and roost ponds for the last century, have been cut off for three years.
An ongoing drought and water supply reservoirs near record-low levels have stopped the quasi-governmental authority that controls the river from releasing water downstream.
Without water from the reservoirs, 85 percent of geese have stopped staying in the area and the extensive canal system that routed water to the birds is in disrepair, making it impossible to deliver water effectively, said Kirby Brown, a wildlife biologist with Ducks Unlimited and co-chair of the Lower Colorado River Basin Coalition.
Brown is working with the Lower Colorado River Authority to put water on the prairie for birds next year, as farmers face a fourth year without water from the Colorado River.
Historically, the relatively small amount of water used to replenish ponds where water fowl sleep is piggy backed on irrigation water. The large amounts of irrigation water would be sent with the duck water more than 200 miles down the Colorado River to Matagorda, Wharton and Colorado counties.
Once in the counties, the water made its way to ponds through hundreds of miles of canal systems.
For the canals to carry water efficiently, the vegetation has to be mowed down and the land must be saturated enough that it doesn't absorb the water, said John Hoffman, LCRA vice president of water. In some cases, three times as much water would be needed to prepare canals to carry water than what would be purchased by those trying to fill ponds.
Pairing the duck water with irrigation water helped pay for the cost of maintaining the canals, Hoffman said. But without water for rice being sent downstream, the economics of maintaining the canals doesn't pay off.
"The dilemma that we ran into this year was some calls came in for water for ducks and the problem was most of these requests for water were down dry canals," he said.
Brown hopes to work with the river authority to identify key areas necessary to keep geese coming, and staying, in the area. With sanctuaries identified, volunteer efforts by guides and landowners could be focused on maintaining the canals that feed key ponds.
The river authority is open to such a solution, Hoffman said.
While the effort may keep the hunting industry alive, the agriculture industry in Matagorda, Wharton and Colorado counties continues to shrink.
"We're still trying to get water for rice; it just won't rain," Brown said.