Monday, March 5, 2012

No Water for Texas Rice Farmers

On Friday, March 2, 2012 the Lower Colorado River Authority, LCRA, announced that for the first time in its 78 year history they would not be delivering irrigation water to most downstream farmers this year under emergency relief granted by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to the obligations of the existing water contracts. According to Texas state water law, “first in time is first in right.” Downstream rice farmers were given first water rights in the Colorado basin, and these rights are senior to LCRA's water rights for the Highland Lakes. In fact, without the support of the rice farmers, the Highland Lakes and dams might never have been built. Rice farmers were among the strongest supporters of building the Highland Lakes and dams in the 1930s to reduce flooding and make water available during droughts. Nonetheless, it is most of the rice farmers who will not be receiving their water this year.

Overall, approximately 60% of all the world's freshwater withdrawals go to irrigation. Texas’ use of irrigation water falls right in that range. Without irrigation, rice could never be grown in the dry lands of Texas and the large scale farming operations could not exist. The system of water rights that developed in Texas assured for generations the allocation of water to agriculture. The water rights system as conceived and administered in Texas and the western states was not designed to conserve water. It was developed in a time when population was still sparse, water supplies were believed to be plentiful and development and growth were to be encouraged. The system was designed to protect the water and work necessary to build farms in the west. This management scheme is contractual and has produced agricultural practices that may be unsustainable in the long term as overall water demand increases.

Texas rice farmers count on their water allocations to irrigate the land along the Gulf Coast. Texas usually ranks as the nation's fourth or fifth highest producing rice-growing state, producing about 7% of the nation's rice. The farmers in the Colorado River basin make up almost three-quarters of the state's total rice acreage. Without surface irrigation water, many farmers will be able to plant only a fraction of the rice they usually grow, and some farmers won't plant any. Farmer who plan on planting this year will pump groundwater to irrigate the rice. Last year downstream farmers received about 368,000 acre-feet of Highland Lakes water. LCRA operates the storage and pumping plants that supply water through a 1,100-miles of irrigation canals in Matagorda, Wharton and Colorado counties. The facilities are organized into four service areas, Gulf Coast, Lakeside, Garwood and Pierce Ranch, and are capable of transporting water to 91,500 acres of farm land annually.

Even with the recent rains, lakes Buchanan and Travis, the region’s reservoirs, are at only 42% capacity. The combined storage of the lakes was 847,000 acre-feet on March 1, 2012. This was below the 850,000 acre-feet level required to be in the lakes on March 1st to allow the release of irrigation water to farmers in the Lakeside, Gulf Coast and Pierce Ranch irrigation districts under the September 2011 agreement to void the existing water contract obligations to those farmers. Farmers in the Garwood irrigation operation will still receive some water from the Highland Lakes this year, up to 20,000 acre-feet, because they hold senior water rights that were cut back, not cancelled. Had LCRA released irrigation water to the bulk of the rice farmers it would only have been 25% of the allocation, but the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality granted LCRA's request for emergency relief from contract obligations this past December, otherwise downstream farmers would have been entitled to as much as 178,000 acre-feet of water from the Highland Lakes this year.

LCRA operates lakes Buchanan and Travis under a state-approved Water Management Plan that allocates water amongst users. Last fall a stakeholder group determined that the 850,000 acre-feet level was the minimum level necessary to protect the cities and industries from water shortages. If water levels fall below 600,000 acre-feet and the LCRA Board of Directors are required under the Water Management Plan to declare a drought worse than the “Drought of Record”, the 10-year drought of the 1940s and 50s that is considered the worst drought in state history. When a Drought of Record is declared, the cities and industry are required to reduce water use by 20%. The 850,000 acre-feet level was chosen to ensure that water would not be released for irrigation in 2012 and then cut off mid-crop wasting the water if the combined storage fell to 600,000 acre-feet triggering the Drought of Record condition. Farmers pay considerably less for water than cities and industry and, therefore, their water is considered "interruptible" during a severe drought.

This is a another step in changing the historic rights to and allocations of water in the west as regional droughts and ever increasing demand stress the water supply. Though “on average” the United States uses less than 8% of the water that falls as precipitation within our borders annually, unfortunately, precipitation varies from the average significantly on a regional basis and thus, allocations and supply on a regional basis will remain a problem especially in locations where irrigations is the major water use (mostly the western states). The demand for water is not responsive to supply variations, and the margin for error decreases as demand for water grows. Yet, unbelievable enough Texas grown brown rice was on sale yesterday at Giant. I bought 15 pounds.

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