As drought in Central Texas enters its fourth year, water users increasingly are blaming one another for using too much of this valuable resource.
In the lower Colorado River basin, rice farmers and the environment are the most popular scapegoats. Unfortunately, demonizing rarely solves problems — and that is especially true of water.
The challenge is to accept that we all have a water shortage, and then set about devising constructive solutions.
As a rice farmer in the lower basin, I would like to offer several constructive ideas for dealing with the water shortages that may persist for decades to come.
• Pull together and jointly share the burden of drought.
Colorado, Wharton and Matagorda counties have suffered through two straight years of irrigation water cutoffs. Our local economies are reeling — businesses have closed, workers have lost jobs and revenue has been lost to schools and local governments.
The river, bay and estuaries have been restricted over this time period to critical flows intended to maintain minimal, subsistent habitats.
The recreation industry around the Highland Lakes also has suffered. Yet some of the surrounding communities have not introduced meaningful water conservation measures, arguing they pay higher water rates to ensure its availability even during drought.
We believe that paying higher rates should not provide immunity from water conservation amid a drought that has broken most records in the state.
• Stretch water supplies.
The cheapest way to make water go further is to use it more efficiently.
Rice farmers in Colorado, Wharton and Matagorda counties have invested more than $10 million in water conservation measures over the past 10 years. These measures have enabled individual producers to cut their water usage by as much as 30 percent — using it more efficiently through precision-leveling rice fields, more field inlets, and use of permanent levees and fixed water control structures.
It is certainly my hope that more residents and businesses in the upper basin will do their part to conserve water, including the use of landscapes better suited to their naturally arid climate.
Another way to stretch supplies is to construct reservoirs along the downstream river that can capture excess flood waters like those flowing down the river this week. The Lower Colorado River Authority is studying the feasibility of multiple sites for these reservoirs, and I hope that these efforts will draw the basin-wide support needed for them to materialize.
• Avoid picking winners and losers
Some letter writers to this newspaper have argued that rice farming should be “abandoned” because of the amount of water used. And some lawmakers want to cut off all water for downstream irrigators before upstream users can even be asked to voluntarily conserve water.
Rice farming is ideally suited to the lower three counties because of the soil, tropical climate and topography. In fact the LCRA was created, in part, to provide irrigation to the farmers who discovered the suitability of the crop in the late 1800s.
Most of the rice irrigation downstream survives solely on interruptible water. This water can be curtailed during a major drought and so is not suitable for municipal or industrial use.
Agricultural and environmental uses are quite suited for these interruptible flows.
• Protect the environment
Letter writers have also argued that no water should be released from lakes Travis and Buchanan to benefit the river and Matagorda Bay. The plants, animals and fish in the river, estuary and bay already are suffering from a lack of sufficient fresh water — even more because of the loss of irrigation tailwater that sustains them in other times.
It is short-sighted to cut off water for the environment downstream, which poses long-term risks, so it can be used for ill-suited landscapes upstream, a short-term benefit.
Finally, we believe that funding our State Water Plan is one of the best ways to cope with drought. Proposition 6, on the Nov. 5 ballot, would allocate $2 billion of the rainy day fund to aid with the financing of much-needed water projects.
Some 20 percent of the funds would be set aside for water conservation projects and another 10 percent for rural areas in the state, according to the legislation that authorized Proposition 6.
Please help secure water supplies for all Texans by voting for Proposition 6.
Rice farmers are doing their part to get through the worst drought since the 1950s and to ensure sufficient supplies for the future. We only ask that everyone else do the same.
Gertson chairs the Colorado Water Issues Committee, which represents rice producers, landowners and businesses in the lower three counties along the Colorado River.