There is no argument that rice operations are getting a price break for water used from the Colorado River, and well they should. CTWC’s president criticizes the demand for water from the three Highland Lakes of Central Texas, the same lakes that provide water to the City of Austin. But rice farmers have been using the water from the Colorado River for more than 40 years before the Highland Lakes were created. Rice farmers were among the strongest supporters of building the Highland Lakes in the 1930s because they recognized the value of the dams in easing flooding and making water available during droughts. Without the support of the rice farmers, the lakes might never have been built.

In addition, in Texas, “first in time is first in right” when it comes to water use. It’s not just an idea, it’s the law. Rice farmers were irrigating fields long before Austin became a metropolis. While that doesn’t give them priority rights over the hundreds of thousands of water users in the city, it does qualify them for certain considerations. While Austin has grown by leaps and bounds in recent decades, multiplying the need for water from the Highland Lakes, rice growers have voluntarily reduced rice acres in an effort to share the resources with their urban neighbors. In the 1980s, rice growers in the three-county region reduced rice acres from 450,000 acres to about 170,000 acres in recent years. Last year that number was reduced even further as a result of water curtailment by LCRA.

 

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Another point of contention is the amount of water purchased by rice growers in the three-county region (Matagorda, Wharton and Colorado counties). Burnside says he believes Tedder is “badly mistaken” about rice growers using more than 300 billion gallons of water each year. Regardless how much water rice growers use, the amount per year continues to shrink.

In January this year LCRA voted unanimously to once again curtail water from the Colorado River for use on rice farms for a second year in a row. The economic impact not only hits farmers hard but entire rural communities in the three-county rice region.

LCRA, recognizing the negative impact on rice operations, devised a plan last year designed to provide some relief. A test reservoir using an abandoned gravel pit was constructed that helped to provide limited irrigation relief to rice farmers. If the project proved successful -- and it seems that it has -- LCRA intended to search for other areas suitable for the construction of three more small ponds that could help rice growers while still reducing demand for river water.

But Tedder opposes the construction of these new reservoirs, indeed any new surface water projects in favor of more conservation efforts. While no one will argue conservation should take a priority to help the current and future water needs of Texas, it is difficult to imagine why new water projects should systematically be ignored as a possible added solution under the right circumstances.