South Texas rice farmers are looking to the sky in hopes of unexpected rain now that a drought response compromise has been reached with the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) that provides a little more time before irrigation gates on the Colorado River are closed if substantial rainfall doesn’t increase reservoir storage levels at two Highland Lakes in Central Texas.

If lake storage levels do not rise before a March 1 deadline, it could devastate the state’s richest rice growing region in the 2012 crop year.

The most severe drought in Texas history has rice growers in Matagorda, Wharton, and Colorado counties scrambling over plans for spring planting as the compromise now goes before the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). The three counties represent about 70-percent of total rice acreage in Texas.

LCRA operates nine major pumping plants that supply water through a 1,000-plus mile network of irrigation canals in the three counties.

“Rice farmers in the region have greatly reduced rice acreage in recent years largely because of water problems. But more is going to be needed if rice farming is to survive this and future water problems in Texas,” says Dick Ottis, president of Rice Belt Warehouse in El Campo, Texas. 

Ottis refers to a voluntary move by Texas rice growers in the 1980s that reduced total acreage from 450,000 to just over 170,000 acres last year.

“But there is still not enough water coming down the river to support that, and under terms of the new (LCRA) water plan, the water would be cut off anytime lake levels fall below a certain level. These triggers in the new plan make it difficult for farmers to plan their crop and impossible to sustain it in times of drought,” Ottis adds.

The new LCRA plan prohibits the release of water stored in Lakes Buchanan and Travis near Austin for agricultural purposes if the combined lake storage levels fall below 850,000-acre feet. Currently the lakes have a combined storage of about 770,000-acre feet, meaning that when the new rule takes effect March 1, no water will be released for rice farmers downstream.An acre-foot is the volume of water needed to cover an acre of surface to a depth of 1 foot, or almost 326,000 gallons.