The issue of whether Texas rice growers on or near the lower Colorado River will receive river water to flood their rice fields next year will be back on the table again when the Lower Colorado River Authority Board of Directors meet Nov. 14.

The hot topic issue pits recreational users of the Highland Lakes and residents and water users in the City of Austin against many Texas rice growers who traditionally depend upon water releases from the Colorado to sustain their rice crops in Colorado, Wharton and Matagorda Counties near where the river drains into the Gulf of Mexico.    

A Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) emergency order authorizing the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) to control water releases from the Highland Lakes for downstream agriculture was approved and set in place earlier this year, but is set to expire at the end of December. As a result of that emergency order, LCRA limited water releases to rice growers this year, which farmers say caused more than a 50 percent drop in planted rice acres in 2012.

The emergency order curtailment was based on a formula that took into consideration the lake levels at Lakes Travis and Buchanan and was prompted by the unprecedented drought of 2011 and 2012.

But last month, the LCRA staff recommended to the board that currently they do not recommend applying for a new emergency order regarding water releases for agriculture in 2013 because spring, summer and fall rains have raised the water levels in both lakes and anticipated rainfall in the winter months could further replenish reservoir supplies.

That recommendation hasn’t set well with opponents to the release of lake water to rice growers. A local media frenzy ensued in Austin and surrounding area where opponents to the measure have made known their disagreement to resupplying what they term “water desperately needed to sustain residents, businesses and industry across Central Texas.”

LCRA general manager Becky Motal has subsequently said their staff recommendation was based upon conditions as they existed in early Oct., and now says changing conditions could affect that staff recommendation.

“Some news reports wrongly concluded that [the staff recommendation] meant LCRA had already decided to provide water for rice irrigation next year. That wasn’t what happened, she writes on the LCRA web site. “LCRA is continuing to monitor lake levels, study weather forecasts, assess inflows into the Highland Lakes, and use computer models to bring the best and latest information about the water supply prospects to the board at its Nov. 14 meeting.”

Of particular concern, says Motal, is the changing climate forecast. As the La Niña event that caused the Texas drought began to fade in the spring this year, weather forecasters were predicting the re-appearance of an El Niño weather pattern, traditionally associated with bringing average to above average rainfall to Texas. Motal says while that has taken place, the latest weather models and forecast are calling for a diminishing El Niño in the months ahead, and that could lead to resurgence of yet another La Niña event.

Decision pending

But even if the rains stop for the winter, that doesn’t mean water won’t be released to rice growers in 2013.

“Currently, combined storage in lakes Travis and Buchanan is more than 880,000 acre-feet. Even under current conditions, the lakes won’t drop too much below that before the TCEQ’s existing emergency order expires at the end of December. Absent any further or additional emergency relief, releases from the Highland Lakes for downstream agriculture next year will depend on the current 2010 TCEQ-approved Water Management Plan or on a proposed amended Water Management Plan that now is pending at TCEQ,” she said, and that could mean that as much as 125,000 acre-feet of stored water could be released next year. A second release would then be possible depending on lake levels and rainfall amounts by March 1, 2013.

But the amount of water released hinges on the approval of a pending TCEQ amended water plan that authorizes and sets the standard for water releases for agriculture based upon the amount of water in the reservoirs on Jan. 1 or March 1 each year, whichever is greater.

If the amended plan is not approved and there is no emergency order before contracts are issued for irrigation, water would be made available under the 2010 Water Management Plan. Under that plan, if the combined storage is at today’s level, LCRA would provide up to 183,000 acre-feet of stored water for irrigation.

“Ultimately, TCEQ will decide which Water Management Plan LCRA falls under: the 2010 plan, the amended plan, or an emergency order if one is sought. I want to reiterate that LCRA is closely monitoring conditions daily. LCRA has not decided to seek emergency relief from TCEQ, nor have we decided not to seek it. No decision has been made,” Motal said.