Water proposal could devastate Texas rice industry

September 21, 2011 - 3:20 AM
Food and Farm No Water

Rancher and farmer Victor Corporon looks over his rice field Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011, in Palacios, Texas. Corporon and his wife Barbara depend on water from the Colorado River to grow rice, a staple of their farm near the Texas coast. But as the Lower Colorado River Authority contemplates a drought measure that would cut off water to farmers, the Corporons and hundreds of other South Texas farmers are trying to figure out how they’ll keep their farms going through the most severe one-year drought in Texas history. Officials are considering a proposal that could cut off water to about 250 farmers, mostly rice, in Matagorda, Wharton and Colorado counties, the biggest rice-producing counties in Texas. The proposal, which could get a vote Wednesday, would only be implemented if water levels fall below a certain level in lakes Buchanan and Travis on Jan. 1. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Barbara Corporon and her husband Victor depend on water from the Colorado River to grow rice, a staple of their farm near the Texas coast.

But as the Lower Colorado River Authority contemplates cutting off that water because of one of the worst droughts the state has ever seen, the Corporons and hundreds of other South Texas farmers are trying to figure out how they'll keep their farms going.

"With the amount of money that it takes for us to farm, one bad year is all you can stand and then you're bankrupt," said Barbara Corporon, 46. "We're too old for anybody to hire us. This is what we've done all our life ... He's too young to retire, but he's too old for anything else. We're in a pickle."

While most of Texas and the Southwest are under moderate to extreme drought conditions, agricultural water rationing and curtailment proposals are becoming more widespread, even affecting parts of the Deep South.

"We know that the scope of the situation is huge," said Matt Herrick, a spokesman for the United States Department of Agriculture.

In Texas, the board of directors for the LCRA, which manages the southern part of the massive river, is considering a proposal that could cut off water to about 250 farmers in the state's three biggest rice-producing counties — Matagorda, Wharton and Colorado.

They say it's an emergency measure to protect the water that's left. Several Central Texas communities, including Austin, depend on the reservoirs for drinking and other utilities.

"We stand on your shoulders at the LCRA ... we have no other source of water," said Greg Meszaros, director the Austin Water Utility.

The proposal, which could get a vote Wednesday, would only be implemented in 2012 if water levels of manmade reservoirs along the massive Texas river fall below a certain level on Jan. 1.

The 862-mile Colorado River starts near the Texas Panhandle and flows into the Gulf of Mexico. At its southern end, tributaries flow into canals, where the LCRA releases flows to be used by farmers who have longstanding water rights' agreements.

The Corporons are trying to figure out if they can afford to drill expensive water wells to support other crops.

Matagorda County farmer Paul Sliva, whose family has been farming in the area for 50 years, says if the proposal passes and it doesn't rain, he won't be able to farm rice at all next year.

"I don't know how many of us can make it without this water," Sliva said.

Texas produces about 170,000 acres of rice each year, around 5 percent of the nation's total.

David Schroeder, executive director of the Wharton County Economic Development Corporation, said a move to cut off water would be catastrophic to the region's economy.

"Some people may think that it's just one or two and farmers," Schroeder said. "But it's farmers, implement companies, all the green and downstream production companies that are effected. Jobs are going to be lost, second crops aren't going to be able to be done. Farms may shut down and prices may go up. This is how important it is for our community to have water."

If approved, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality must sign off on the plan because it is a deviation from the state-approved water management plan.

Since last October, Texas has seen the driest 11-month period since it began keeping rainfall records in 1895. This Texas summer has been the hottest in the nation's history.

Officials say the hot and dry conditions have increased evaporation on the Highland Lakes and reduced the flows in the tributaries that feed the lakes to a trickle. Several miles upstream, where the reservoir levels continue to fall, community officials are pushing for the water cutoffs as they worry about their future.

"It's about survival," said Burnet County Judge Donna Klaeger, whose district includes the Colorado River reservoir known as Lake Buchanan. "What happens when you turn on a faucet and water doesn't come on? What's the plan then? What happens when there is no more water and the water can't come out of Lake Buchanan?"

The proposals being considered would only be considered if climate forecasts for Texas continue to call for a dry fall and winter.

"If the dry weather continues, we will reach levels that we have not reached before in previous droughts," LCRA general manager Becky Motal said. "We recognize that all of LCRA's customers would face financial and operational hardships. LCRA is considering these difficult decisions very carefully as we carry out our responsibility to manage the region's water supply in a fair and responsible manner."

Climate experts predict warmer and drier conditions to persist in Texas through the end of the year. That's mostly due to the return of La Nina, a periodic cooling of the tropical Pacific Ocean that could affect the weather worldwide. Among the effects are warmer than normal weather in the U.S. Great Plains. The latest outlook for October through December shows Texas at the center of a region of above-normal temperatures.

The outlook also calls for drier than normal conditions in that region, a weather pattern that likely will extend all across the Gulf Coast states.

Stacy Fitzgerald-Redd, a spokeswoman for the USA Rice Federation, said Texas is currently the only rice-producing state that has proposed cutting off water.

For now, farmers in Texas are hoping the LCRA will agree to give them more time to come up with backup plans. And they're still hoping for rain.

"We're Texans and we're going to find a way to get through it one way or another," said Wharton County Judge Phillip Spenrath. "Even if it means everybody's got to cut back, we've got to get through this somehow. Until somebody learns how to make it rain."