Since it is a Leap Year there is an extra day in February in 2012, a one day extension of the month that happens every fourth year to helps scientists and scholars correctly calculate the movement of the Earth as it makes its perpetual path around the Sun.

The extra day this year represents another day of hope for rain by Texas rice growers who say only a Central Texas downpour this week could give them reason to hope the 2012 crop year isn’t a total bust.

Beginning March 1, LCRA will be operating under an emergencydrought relief plan approved by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ)that stops farmers from taking water from the Colorado River for rice irrigation if lake levels are below 850,000 square-acre feet. As of Feb. 27, the level was holding steady at 844,000 square-acre feet, and unless the skies open up over Central Texas on Feb.29, farmers face not only the emergency drought relief plan March 1 but the possibility of permanent restrictions imposed once a new water management plan approved by LCRA Board members last week gets state approval.

Rice farmers in Wharton, Matagorda and Colorado Counties, the largest rice growing area in the state and one that produces about five-percent of all U.S. rice, are affected by both the emergency plan and the new water management plan once it is put into place.

New Plan

The new water management plan got the nod last week after a year and half controversy that pitted the rice industry against urban communities in a fight over water rights and management. The LCRA Board brought to a close the latest chapter of the issue when they voted 10-5 in favor of the measure.

“Farmers have been using more water than we use to support the population of Austin, so I think the new water plan is a good one to make certain we can meet the growing needs of the people that live here,” says Jason Hill with Austin’s water department.

During the peak of the current drought last summer and fall lake levels had fallen to historic lows, pressuring businesses and communities around the lakes with economic hardships as lake visitors dwindled. Even the City of Austin is lauding the new plan as a “needed and effective way” to secure water rights for not just rice farmers downstream, but for everyone.”

But farmers say they have always had priority water rights on water from the river ever since the Central Texas dams were first built, and that with limitations posed by the new management plan, they won’t be able to depend on water for a 2012 crop.

“I’ve been farming this area for 60 years and this is the first time anyone has ever tried to shut the water off,” says Matagorda County Harley Savage of Triangle Farms, who farms about 2,500 acres of rice near Bay City. “People don’t realize or have forgotten that the Highland lakes were built for flood control and not for recreation. Now LCRA wants to keep the lakes full of water so people can use their sailboats. But when the heavy rains do come, we’re going to have flooding problems downstream again once they open the flood gates.”