Savage and other farmers in the three county region say LCRA’s new water management plan couldn’t have come at a worse time. Not only has the drought threatened the livelihoods of farmers, but it comes at a time when efforts to reopen rice trade with Cuba is making headway in Washington.

“Years ago most of the rice from this area was sold to Cuba, and if that becomes a realty again in the near future, it would mean a return to better days for Texas rice production—if  we can get the water to grow our crops,” he added.

Under the new plan the LCRA will look at water levels in January and June each year to gauge whether farmers can take water from the river. Even if levels allow it, producers will be limited to taking 273,500 acre-feet of water a year.

If there is a bright side to the story it is that helpful rains fell in January and February. Just over a month ago the lake levels stood at 761,000 square-acre feet, picking up just over 80,000 square-acre feet in about a month. While more and substantial rain is needed to raise the level over the marginal 850,000 square-acre feet needed to release water to farmers, forecasters are expressing a degree of optimism that the worst of the drought may have passed and say rainfall rates in spring and summer may be up to the annual average.

“We’re seeing the first signs of a weakening La Nina, the event that has caused the drought, and I think we will see a return to more normal rainfall amounts by April and May, and certainly by the summer,” says LCRA meteorologist Bob Rose. “I am more optimistic now that normal periods of rain trending toward our usual annual average should return in the months ahead, bringing us some relief from the historic drought.”

Rose says by late summer Texas may see the return of an El Nino weather pattern, a shift in the atmosphere that normally brings more rain than normal.

“For the immediate future I think March rains will be below average, but winter rains have helped to bring up levels in the lakes and reservoirs and good rains in spring and summer could be the very thing we need to escape drought conditions we have experienced over the last year.”

In the interim, rice farmers are looking at what they can do to cut costs and make it through what's clearly going to be a hard year. Many say they will do well to plant 45 percent of their normal crop. Others are sifting through insurance papers hoping to salvage what they can in anticipation of bad year.

But unless substantial rains come soon, Texas rice acres could be down by as much as 40 to 60 percent this year, a number farmers say could be devastating to their operations, especially when LCRA puts the new water management plan into action.