A decision expected in January from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) will have an immediate and possibly devastating effect on Texas rice production, but the precedent set could put all of Texas agriculture in jeopardy.
TCEQ will rule whether to accept the Lower Colorado River Authority’s claim that releasing water from two reservoirs on the Colorado River (Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan) will result in “an imminent threat to public safety,” says Ron Gertson with the Colorado Water Issues Committee, an organization formed to protect senior water rights of farmers and industry downriver from Austin.
The imminent threat ruling means that senior water rights “can be put aside” to respond to a water shortage, Gertson explained. He said currently Texas does not have enough water to go around during drought periods. “We will see a time when Texas does not have enough water without drought,” he said.
The current claim of imminent threat, he said during a break-out session of the recent Texas Plant Protection Association annual conference in Bryan, is more political theater than actual threat to public safety.
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Three straight years of severe drought have taken a toll on water levels in both of the lakes near Austin. “But at current levels, the LCRA could release water without threat.”
Rice is threatened
Rice farmers, he said, are threatened by continued denial of water. “This will be the third year in a row that no water has been allocated from the Colorado River. That means some 50,000 acres of rice were not planted for the past two years and will probably not be planted in 2014.
“Over time, things have conspired to take water away from farmers and ranchers who were the first to use water from the Colorado River.”
He said before rice farmers plant a crop they must be assured they will have adequate water for flooding throughout the season. “If water is cut off in the middle of the year, they lose the crop.”
Also of concern, he said, is the moving trigger point at which water could be released and the percentage of historic water downstream users would be granted. “LCRA raised the trigger from lake levels of some 650,000 acre-feet to 850,000 acre-feet with a proposal to adjust upward to 1.1 million acre-feet capacity before any water is released. And, even if reservoirs reach 100 percent of capacity, rice producers would receive only 60 percent of historical water.
“This change (for Austin) would be miniscule,” Gertson said.
When LCRA and TCEQ adjusted the trigger point to 850,000 acre-feet “we were okay with that. We didn’t fight it. This time we fought.” Previous votes to allow LCRA to deny water allocations were unanimous, Gertson said. The last vote was 8 to 7. “It passed by one vote.”
The problem, he added, is that “influential people living on the lakes,” lobby for the imminent threat ruling. He admits that three years of drought have turned lakefront property into less scenic real estate. “But water currently in the lakes is sufficient for three-and-a-half to four years, even if no water comes into the lakes.”
An organization called the Texas Water Coalition represents “firm” water users, Gertson said. That means they pay more for water than those buying water for irrigation. “But irrigators are not guaranteed water.”
The stakes are high, he said, not just for Texas rice but for Texas agriculture. “Texas is food deficit. We produce only 63 percent of our food and we lose 200,000 acres of Texas farmland annually to urban sprawl. And 25 percent of Texas farmland is irrigated, representing 10 percent of all irrigated acreage in the United States.
“The most productive land is irrigated, mostly in the High Plains.” The High Plains, which depends on the Ogallala aquifer, is also of concern. “The Ogallala is a depleting aquifer and in 75 years we may see no (irrigated) production in the Texas Panhandle. They have been producing from an aquifer that doesn’t recharge.”
The Texas Gulf Coast and the Rio Grande Valley irrigate from recharging aquifers. “But those aquifers are not adequate to make up for what we are losing from the Colorado River. Gulf Coast producers are now drilling wells for irrigation and we have concerns about sustainability.”
Gertson said the TCEQ vote in January, “likely will not be in our favor and will have statewide repercussions if they allow the imminent threat to public safety claim. All of Texas agriculture will be in jeopardy.”
He said his organization will implore TCEQ “to set a higher standard for imminent threat.”
He also commented on passage in November of Proposition 6, a law that provides a funding apparatus for water resource development and conservation efforts. “Which water plans will be funded is not decided. But 20 percent of funds are to be set aside for agriculture and rural areas.”
He cautioned ag industry supporters to be vigilant about plans that seek funds. “They could fund things that make it possible to take more water from agriculture. It’s also possible to fund things that will help sustain agriculture.”
He commended Ducks Unlimited and the Texas Farm Bureau for support on the Colorado Water use issue and encouraged agricultural interests to support legislative candidates who will champion water rights.
“It matters who our legislators are,” he said. “We have to elect those who will look out for agriculture.”