As drought conditions worsen throughout Texas, and Austin officials have restricted the amount of water residents can use, many have asked why rice farmers downstream on the Colorado River are still getting water from the Highland Lakes.
So far this year, the Lower Colorado River Authority, which manages the lakes, has sent 124,942 acre-feet of water from the reservoirs at Lakes Travis and Buchanan to farmers in Colorado, Wharton and Matagorda counties.
That’s more than double the 59,266 acre-feet sent downstream to agricultural customers all of last year, when rainfall was more abundant and farmers could rely on flows from the Colorado River to sustain their rice fields.
LCRA vice president of water John Hofmann said the rice farmers, like everyone else this year, are relying on stored water to survive in the dry time when rainfall is sparse and drought conditions have spread to three-fourths of the state.
“Right now all of our customers are using more water from the reservoirs, whether it is your local cities such as Austin, Leander, Cedar Park, Pflugerville, or whether it is industries or power plants,” he said.
The LCRA provides water to residential, agricultural and industrial customers throughout Texas. Most cities rely on their own resources first before they come to the LCRA for stored water, just like farmers rely on the river before the reservoirs.
With a rainfall deficit of at least 5 inches less than normal for the year so far in Austin, water supplies are running low.
“The heart of the issue is … this is why we have the lakes,” Hofmann said. “We create these water supply impoundments to capture the rainfall in periods that are wet so we have frequent supply in dry periods.”
Rice farmers will get 28 percent less water from the LCRA this year for their second crop, which is harvested in mid-October. It is the first time the river authority has curtailed their water supply in three years because of the drought.
Steve Savage, whose family has been farming rice in Bay City for more than 100 years, said if it doesn’t rain soon it will be difficult to harvest his second crop. His business depends on water from the LCRA to survive, and with the cutbacks, he has to be ultra-conservative this year, he said.
“It is stressful enough being a farmer and dealing with the elements, and you put a water curtailment on top of all that, it makes it worse,” Savage said. “We never worried about water before. Now it is something we think about all the time.”
A good dousing would mean Savage could rely on water from the Colorado River instead of the LCRA.
He said he eyes the forecast and prays for rain.
“One big thunderstorm in the right place in two days, the lakes could be running over into the streets of Austin,” he said.
Hofmann said the water supply is still in good shape despite the drought.
On Sunday, Lakes Travis and Buchanan were filled to 68 percent of capacity.
In 2013, one of the region’s worst drought years, they were drained to as low as 32 percent of capacity. The loss had been exacerbated by the LCRA’s decision in 2011 to send a whopping 433,251 acre-feet of water, or 141 billion gallons, downstream to the rice farmers, at the start of the multi-year drought.
The water management plan in place at the time only looked at lake levels on Jan. 1 to determine the amount of water to make available to farmers. The LCRA said it didn’t anticipate the dry conditions in the months ahead and did not have the necessary provisions to protect the water supply. They had to seek emergency orders through the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality between 2012 and 2015 to halt the flow of water entirely to farmers.
The debacle prompted the LCRA to make major revisions to its water management plan in 2015.
The river authority now looks at lake levels and inflows on both March 1, for the first rice crop of the season, and on July 1, for the second rice crop. If the reservoirs fall below certain levels, the river authority can reduce the amount of water it makes available to farmers. If they fall even lower, it can shut it off completely.
Rice farmers buy their water from the LCRA at a lower cost with the expectation their supply can be cut off at any time if circumstances warrant. So far that has not had to happen this drought season. Next year could prove harder for farmers.
“This year going into 2018, there was ample water in the lakes so we could basically plant what we wanted to plant,” Savage said. “Going into 2019 it is going to be a lot tougher because there hasn’t been rain.”