The Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) Board of Directors, on an 8-7 vote Tuesday, Nov. 20, agreed to ask the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to approve an emergency drought request that would cut off Highland Lakes water to most rice farmers in 2014 if the combined storage of lakes Buchanan and Travis is less than 1.1 million acre feet on March 1 next year.

If TCEQ approves the emergency request as expected, it will represent the third year in a row many rice farmers have been denied irrigation allotments or limited to partial deliveries, a development that has financially stressed many rice operations and has caused serious economic problems for rural communities in Wharton, Matagorda and Colorado counties.

In addition to the difficulties cutting off water creates for the agriculture industry, wildlife biologists warn it will mean another year of stress for migrating and native waterfowl that depend on rice fields as habitat.

"We understand how painful this drought has been from one end of the Colorado River basin to the other, but we have to protect the drinking water supply for more than a million Central Texans," LCRA Board Chairman Timothy Timmerman, who voted in favor of the emergency request, said during the meeting. "Today's decision was difficult, but it does just that."

Several water users attended the meeting Tuesday, but like LCRA's Board of Directors, they were divided on the issue. Some argued that drinking water for Central Texas residents takes priority over agriculture and wildlife and that five years of drought conditions warrant the emergency action.

Others who addressed the board argued that restricting water from lower Colorado water users is an unreasonable action that favors Austin water users at the expense of others, many of whom have been using water from the river to sustain life and food production for generations.

In a meeting earlier this fall, Ducks Unlimited Wildlife Biologist Kirby Brown told LCRA officials that if lower river water users are required to curtail water use then Austin water uses should also be limited from watering lawns and washing cars.

“Every individual, every occupation, every community depends on water, and there is presently not enough to meet all demands,” Brown told the board in September. “The reality of the immediate situation is that all users should conserve equally and as much as possible. In the longer view, we must look at all the triggers for water conservation. The ones we have now are clearly coming up short, and system wide water conservation is the only immediate solution.”