South Texas rice farmers are looking to the sky in hopes of unexpected rain now that a drought response compromise has been reached with the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) that provides a little more time before irrigation gates on the Colorado River are closed if substantial rainfall doesn’t increase reservoir storage levels at two Highland Lakes in Central Texas.

If lake storage levels do not rise before a March 1 deadline, it could devastate the state’s richest rice growing region in the 2012 crop year.

The most severe drought in Texas history has rice growers in Matagorda, Wharton, and Colorado counties scrambling over plans for spring planting as the compromise now goes before the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). The three counties represent about 70-percent of total rice acreage in Texas.

LCRA operates nine major pumping plants that supply water through a 1,000-plus mile network of irrigation canals in the three counties.

“Rice farmers in the region have greatly reduced rice acreage in recent years largely because of water problems. But more is going to be needed if rice farming is to survive this and future water problems in Texas,” says Dick Ottis, president of Rice Belt Warehouse in El Campo, Texas. 

Ottis refers to a voluntary move by Texas rice growers in the 1980s that reduced total acreage from 450,000 to just over 170,000 acres last year.

“But there is still not enough water coming down the river to support that, and under terms of the new (LCRA) water plan, the water would be cut off anytime lake levels fall below a certain level. These triggers in the new plan make it difficult for farmers to plan their crop and impossible to sustain it in times of drought,” Ottis adds.

The new LCRA plan prohibits the release of water stored in Lakes Buchanan and Travis near Austin for agricultural purposes if the combined lake storage levels fall below 850,000-acre feet. Currently the lakes have a combined storage of about 770,000-acre feet, meaning that when the new rule takes effect March 1, no water will be released for rice farmers downstream.An acre-foot is the volume of water needed to cover an acre of surface to a depth of 1 foot, or almost 326,000 gallons.

Water fight

“This is a fight for water between farmers, cities and communities like Austin, industrial users and recreational users. Under terms of an existing agreement, farmers buy the water for less, so it no surprise the LCRA would rather sell the water to others that want and need it,” says Linda Raun of L.R. Farms in El Campo.

She should know. Raun served on the LCRA Board of Directors until recently and understands too well the growing demand for water and water rights in Texas. Raun also is the current chair of the USA Rice Producers group in Texas and along with her husband, L.G. Raun, grows rice in Wharton County.

Raun and Ottis agree that if rice production is to remain a viable farming alternative in Texas, other water resources will need to be developed. They might include private reservoirs and more ground wells. But the cost and time involved will provide no relief for the 2012 growing season.

“Depending on the farm, a farmer might be looking at $250,000 to establish a new well, and constructing smaller reservoirs on private property is not without a hefty price tag as well,” Ottis says, though he admits smaller ponds could fill quickly when the normal 45-inch rainfall rate in the region is realized.

“The region is also subject to tropical rains each year and when that happens, filling ponds and small reservoirs would take place quickly,” adds Raun.

But problems remain with evaporation and rapid use during periods of drought, and further reduction in rice acreage may become necessary for the Texas rice industry to remain viable in the years ahead.

“Texas rice growers are going to lose out to Arkansas, Missouri and Mississippi farmers at a time when markets are indicating good potential in the years ahead,” adds Ottis.

This week rice representatives from Texas, Arkansas and Missouri are attending the International Fair in Havana in an effort to expand international rice markets. Drought in Texas, however, may keep the state’s rice farmers from capitalizing on what forecasters are calling a “growing international market.”

“If there is any hope for next year’s Texas rice crop it’s going to come from the skies in the form of substantial rainfall,” says Raun.

The long range forecast, however, calls for the worst drought in Texas history to continue in the months ahead.