If substantial rains don’t fall across Central Texas this month, the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) could begin withholding water from agriculture users March1, the result of a historic drought that has caused reservoir levels along the Lower Colorado River to drop dramatically, resulting in an estimated 50 percent cut in Texas rice acres this year.

Water restrictions on agriculture use were developed jointly last year by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the LCRA and other water management organizations that have been struggling to meet escalating demands on water resources as drought conditions continue to plague the state.

Most affected by the move would be long-grain rice growers in three south-central Texas counties, the heartland of Texas rice production. Growers and millers in Colorado, Wharton and Matagorda Counties, an area that produces about 5 percent of all rice production in the U.S., will be hit the hardest.

“This will be the first time in history we have had to consider limiting water to agriculture users on a grand scale,” says LCRA chief meteorologist Bob Rose. “The only way to avoid it is for substantial rains to raise reservoir levels by the March 1 deadline.”

Under terms of new guidelines, reservoir levels at Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan would need to be 850,000-acre feet before rice growers could funnel water out of the Lower Colorado River. Lake levels as of February 1 were at about 761,000-acre feet. Substantial rains in December and January have helped reservoir levels, but more rain is needed to avoid water restrictions.

“We simply need more rain and higher reservoir levels to meet the growing water demands of communities, industry and agriculture. Without adequate water resources, limiting use becomes our best method of water management,” Rose adds.

He says the move to limit water use has never happened to farmers along the Lower Colorado River and illustrates the magnitude of the current drought.

Dr. Larry Falconer,Professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Extension Economist-Management for District 11 of Texas AgriLife Extension, says the prospect of water shortage this year could cause the lowest production level of rice in Texas in over 100 years.

Economic impact significant

“LCRA serves the highest rice yielding areas in Texas and a tragic year for rice will not only affect growers, but millers, seed companies, rice driers and other support industries. The economic impact from a lack of adequate water this year will cost the area millions of dollars and a large number of jobs,” Falconer said.

According to a Texas AgriLife economic impact analysis, the average value of the rice crop from 2006 through 2010 translated to $99.7 million in total annual output and 2,677 full- and part time jobs in all sectors of the local economy.

According to the study, milling the 2006-2010 average rice crops contributed an additional $211.4 million in output and 631 jobs across all sectors of the regional economy. Because the milling analysis excludes the cost of rice production, the production and milling contributions can be added to determine the total contribution of rice production and primary processing. After spending circulated through the local economy, rice made an average contribution of $374.2 million and 3,308 jobs annually in the three-county area.

Falconer says one of the only alternatives for rice growers this year would be intense irrigation from ground wells. But nearly two-thirds of rice acreage in the three-county region depend on water purchased from LCRA, and even if enough ground wells were available to make up the shortage of water, the high price of fuel would cost growers $100 to $125 an acre more to irrigate.

“By best count, only about 5,000 acres could be irrigated from ground wells to make up the difference, and this is not a significant number, and because of the drought, there is a question as to whether ground water permits will be limited this year as well,” Falconer said.

While Rose and Falconer agree that rice growers are facing serious problems as spring planting season approaches, they are hopeful that additional rain will fall.

“Over the long term, I believe the rains will come back. The National Weather Service is saying that perhaps by late summer we will see more normal rainfall rates across the state, and tropical weather could bring relief even faster,” Falconer said.

“La Nina appears to be peaking right now and should be weakening in March. The latest weather models indicate we may seen a return of more normal rainfall amounts as early as late spring and into the summer season,” Rose says.

But even if substantial rains help to end the current drought cycle later in the spring or summer, most rice growers say it will be too late to hope for a successful crop this year.

“It all depends on the weather,” Falconer agrees.