Merendino says in addition, according to a Texas AgriLife report, rice agriculture contributes an average of $374.3 million and more than 3,300 jobs annually in Colorado, Wharton and Matagorda counties alone. Those numbers don't include rice farming's substantial contributions to the revenue and jobs generated from waterfowl hunting and other outdoor recreation in the state. Waterfowl hunting alone contributes $204 million to the Texas economy each year.

Merendino says a recent study, shows the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, which consists of over 300 distinct wildlife-viewing sites spread among more than 40 Texas counties, has provided opportunities for travelers to see and learn about Texas wildlife, has promoted an understanding of the need to conserve wildlife habitats, and has helped to diversify local economies through nature-based tourism. In 1999, an economic impact study of the Birding Trail indicates:

  • Travelers devoted an average of 31 days/year to birding on the trail.
  • Their most recent trip lasted 8.7 days and 7.6 nights.
  • Travelers on the trail averaged expenditures of $78.50/person/day, within the region.
  • Only 4.6% of travelers on the trail were residents within the region.

The overall impact of bird watching in Texas has been estimated to be as high as $165 million.

In contrast, prior to Brown’s comments, an attorney for the City of Austin argued that a move to release water to rice growers or for any other reason in 2013 could drop lake levels lower than during the drought of the 1950s, one of the worst droughts in Texas history. He said the move could lower lake levels to below 600,000 acre-feet, which could mean the City of Austin fails in delivering enough water for drinking and other purposes to residents and businesses. LCRA staff disagreed that lake levels would drop below 600,000 acre-feet even if the rains stop and rice allocations were met.

During the same meeting, residents living around both lakes expressed concern that extreme low levels in the reservoirs could rob them of water frontage and recreational opportunities and would adversely affect the local economy because of loss of lake users and visitors.

In spite of the LCRA board’s decision, the issue must go before the TCEQ once again before it becomes an approved plan, and some are saying they expect the Ducks Unlimited argument to carry a great deal of weight as it puts a different face on the environmental impact of restricting water from Texas ricelands.

“This is the last intact rice prairie wetland complex of its size remaining in Texas, and the Colorado River is a critical migration landmark running right through the middle of it. I cannot overstate the importance of this area for waterfowl and wetland wildlife,” Brown added.

He emphasized that for every 10,000 acres of flooded ricelands lost, the region loses the ability to support 120,000 waterfowl, and another year of water restrictions, especially in the fall season, would take a major toll on wildlife in Texas.

After LCRA’s decision last week, the issue now goes before TCEQ officials who must make the final decision on whether to accept the water district’s recommendation or to issue another emergency order defining how, when and how much water can be released for all stakeholders. That decision is expected before the end of the Holiday Season.