Texas voted 8 to 7 against justice, God and rice farmers in Austin on Tuesday, Nov. 20. And it was a dark day for all U.S. agriculture. No irrigators are safe now in Texas and perhaps elsewhere as well. This is no exaggeration. Let me explain why.
Texas rice farmers that depend on the Colorado River to plant rice were more or less railroaded this week in Austin at a special board meeting of the Lower Colorado River Authority. This meeting sprang up from the clear blue in the last two weeks to alter permanently the Water Management Program rules in effect since 2010.
After all interests being in agreement for two years that at 850,000 acre feet in the two lakes, interruptible flow to irrigators would be restored, the Board proposed raising that cutoff level to 1.1 million acre feet, a 29 percent increase in the cutoff trigger.
Many lake interests with righteous indignation gave testimony that even that level was too low for them. Some basically wanted to turn the two variable-level lakes into constant level lakes to ensure that the lakes would be recreationally sound in perpetuity.
The struggle is larger than rice farming. It is whether agriculture has a right to exist on the Colorado River, share in its water benefits and by implication elsewhere. This is a deeper, global struggle as to who owns the river flows. It would appear that lake interests want to dictate who gets the water and when.
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Several sort of implied why do we even need agriculture when we can get our food at a grocery store. Other than limiting water to once per week, Austin has taken no steps to curtail its water usage. The Sierra Club noted that watering once per month on a seasonal schedule would not destroy lawns. The pain of drought is not really being shared; it is all pushed down stream to rural communities there where a population of 250,000 souls has seen its businesses already decline by 20 percent to 50 percent.
The intent behind this regulatory change was to essentially take away any risk of the lakes falling below 600,000 acre-feet at any time in the future.
One pro-irrigator presenter said there should be “one basin under God.” He meant that all interests should find a common ground and follow good water science. He also implied what is happening violates the very principles of what governs the U.S. as a democracy.
After months of deferring to science in settling the issues of water management, the politics of water and the Authority’s board took over. It is another example of people talking past one another and having no ability to compromise or talk analysis and science. On a deeper level, it is a failure to govern and regulate in a fair and equitable manner with due process.
The Authority had as its original purpose in 1934 to provide water to rice farmers, provide hydroelectric energy to Texas users and above all to prevent flooding and loss of life and property. Texas has been farming rice for 115 years.
This regulation change was passed by one vote, so it will take several record rains to restore water to rice growers. This change, moreover, would set the precedent for the exclusion of agriculture as a legitimate industry in Texas and by analogy elsewhere in the U.S. We have said, “No farmers, no food.” It appears that some now believe that is just fine with them as long as it floats their docks.
It is ironic now that a $2 billion Proposition 6 (to help fund water projects in the state) was passed. However, in a few years, there may be no farmers around to benefit from the construction of new water holding facilities. It was a very sad day for all we believe in and cherish about this nation we call the United States, under God.
Milo Hamilton is a senior economist with Firstgrain.com in Austin, Texas