As Mid-Coast rice farmers in Texas continue to suffer through a year without water releases from two Central Texas lakes, they are getting unexpected support from conservation giant Ducks Unlimited.

Todd Merendino, manager of conservation programs for DU’s Texas field office, appeared before the Lower Colorado River Authority’s Water Operations Committee June 19 and briefed the group on the importance of coastal wetlands and the role they play in the state’s economy.

Merendino was asked to appear before the Committee to discuss the impact of LCRA’s new water policy as it relates to wildlife and wetlands in the Texas Mid-coast region.

Merendino, citing a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report, told the group that Texas leads the nation with the most hunters and anglers (2.6 million), the most money spent by sportsmen and women ($6.6 billion), the most jobs supported (106,000) and the highest tax revenue generated ($1.3 billion) each year by outdoor recreation in any state. He told the LCRA Committee that wintering water fowl represent a substantial segment of that revenue, and rice wetlands surrounding the Colorado River have traditionally offered up to 50,000 acres of prime habitat for migratory birds.

In addition, Merendino says, according to a Texas AgriLife report, on average rice agriculture contributes $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.

'Rice important'

"DU appreciates the opportunity to discuss the importance of rice agriculture to waterfowl," Merendino told the committee. "We understand difficult decisions must be made in current extreme drought conditions. However, nearly 2 million wintering waterfowl and millions of other migratory birds and wildlife depend heavily on the managed wetlands associated with rice agriculture in the Texas Mid-Coast region for habitat and food resources.”

Merendino told Farm Press that in reviewing LCRA’s decision to limit releases of water from Buchanan and Travis Lakes near Austin, no consideration was offered to its impact on wildlife or waterfowl.

“Given the importance of the Texas Mid-Coast to waterfowl and the related economic impacts of hunting and other wildlife-associated recreation in the area, this absence is very disappointing," he said.

But he described the meeting with the Committee as cordial and professional and said he believes the group is taking a serious look at the issue in light of the new information he provided.

“It was a very positive presentation and well received. A drought like we experienced last year is a serious development for everyone in the state and LCRA’s action reflects the serious measures that are necessary to deal with such a widespread problem,” he said. “But the Committee admits it was unaware of the waterfowl and wetland issue posed by that decision and was responsive to the presentation.”

He said the Committee suggested that conservation groups and property owners along the lower Colorado River could opt to purchase water from the river to maintain wetlands, but said that water must come from the natural flow of the river and not from dam releases at Highland Lakes.

“DU has been working for 20-plus years in developing partnerships with private property owners to work toward better conservation efforts, and the Committee thought purchasing river water would provide one alternative to help with the problem, and it might,” he said.

Give and take

But he was quick to point out that over the last 20 years DU’s efforts in the partnership program have added about 60,000 acres of new land earmarked for conservation while LCRA’s decision to limit lake water effectively took away up to 50,000 acres of land that served conservation efforts.

“The Committee was very responsive to the news and is dedicated to looking at other long range solutions. But in a serious drought, measures must be taken to protect water rights, and not a lot can be done about that until the rains fall again,” he added.

He said there is a chance that federal grants or loans could help, pointing to a National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) program that has helped farmers protect the environment in the past.

“Whether those funds are still available or if the scope of this project would qualify, I can’t say. But we should open all the doors we can as we search for ways to better protect wildlife and the benefits that provides as we move forward,” he said. “There’s only so much water and the needs of people come first, and we understand that. But I think now LCRA realizes there is a lot at stake in terms of conservation and hopefully they will be able to assist in helping Texas conserve all of its natural resources when developing future policies.”