While Texas rice growers in Wharton, Colorado and Matagorda counties are feeling a little relief after the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) Board of Directors indicated they plan on releasing 121,000 acre-feet of water next year if Highland Lake levels don’t drop below 775,000 acre-feet, not everyone is happy over the decision.

For beginners, if forecasters are right and rain showers become scarcer in the winter and spring seasons, maintaining the minimum 775,000 acre-feet is a tall order. Currently, levels at Buchanan and Travis Lakes are at about 860,000 acre-feet of water, just 43 percent of their total capacity and well below normal.

Secondly, even if lake levels remain above the minimum by Jan. 1 and Mar. 1, as required, growers say that will only provide enough water for irrigation to support the first of two rice plantings in 2013, hardly enough to recover from the devastating developments of 2012. This year growers were denied their allocation of water from the river because of an emergency order authorized by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) at the request of LCRA. That move forced rice growers to plant only about 50 percent of their normal rice acres.

In spite of the uncertainties and challenges ahead, however, rice farmers have expressed relief and gratitude that LCRA’s vote last week clears the way for at least a chance at the release of some river water for irrigation this year.

But a well-known wildlife conservation and sportsmen’s group has raised the alarm over the LCRA decision, warning state and water district officials not to forget the potential negative impact on millions of migrating water fowl if rice fields are not flooded, especially during the traditional second rice planting season at the end of summer and beginning of the fall season.

A biologist for Ducks Unlimited testified before the LCRA’s board last week that most of the estimated two million waterfowl in the region rely on the affected rice acres to meet their food needs, and if rice fields are not flooded next year there could be dire consequences, not only to the ecology and wildlife of the region but also to the local economy, as a result of fewer sporting activities like hunting and bird watching.  

Compromises

“We realize that water allocation decisions are challenging and that compromises have to be made,” testified Kirby Brown, a conservation outreach biologist for Ducks Unlimited. “However, Ducks Unlimited feels very strongly that the needs of waterfowl and wetland wildlife in the rice prairie wetlands complex must be voiced and evaluated along with other stakeholder interests. There are significant economic impacts tied to rice agriculture and waterfowl hunting, as well as natural resource and cultural heritage considerations. We sincerely thank the LCRA board and staff for taking the time to hear our concerns, and we want to express our appreciation for their efforts to meet in the middle.”

In addition to water fowl, Brown told the board that more than 12 million shorebirds and wading birds are highly dependent on flooded rice acres for nesting, migration and wintering habitat. He says the region’s wildlife already is taking a hit as a result of the emergency order that prevented release of water this year to rice fields. Another year of dry rice fields could be “devastating to wildlife” in the region.

Earlier this year, Todd Merendino, manager of conservation programs for Ducks Unlimited’s Texas field office, testified before LCRA’s board over the importance of coastal wetlands and the role they play in protecting the Texas waterfowl population. Citing a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report, he told the group that Texas leads the nation with the most hunters and anglers (2.6 million), the most money spent by sportsmen and women ($6.6 billion), the most jobs supported (106,000), and the highest tax revenue generated ($1.3 billion) each year by outdoor recreation in any state.

He also said that wintering waterfowl represents a substantial segment of that revenue, and rice wetlands surrounding the Colorado River have traditionally offered up to 50,000 acres of prime habitat for migratory birds.

Economic impact is significant

 Merendino says in addition, according to a Texas AgriLife report, rice agriculture contributes an average of $374.3 million and more than 3,300 jobs annually in Colorado, Wharton and Matagorda counties alone. Those numbers don't include rice farming's substantial contributions to the revenue and jobs generated from waterfowl hunting and other outdoor recreation in the state. Waterfowl hunting alone contributes $204 million to the Texas economy each year.

Merendino says a recent study, shows the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, which consists of over 300 distinct wildlife-viewing sites spread among more than 40 Texas counties, has provided opportunities for travelers to see and learn about Texas wildlife, has promoted an understanding of the need to conserve wildlife habitats, and has helped to diversify local economies through nature-based tourism. In 1999, an economic impact study of the Birding Trail indicates:

  • Travelers devoted an average of 31 days/year to birding on the trail.
  • Their most recent trip lasted 8.7 days and 7.6 nights.
  • Travelers on the trail averaged expenditures of $78.50/person/day, within the region.
  • Only 4.6% of travelers on the trail were residents within the region.

The overall impact of bird watching in Texas has been estimated to be as high as $165 million.

In contrast, prior to Brown’s comments, an attorney for the City of Austin argued that a move to release water to rice growers or for any other reason in 2013 could drop lake levels lower than during the drought of the 1950s, one of the worst droughts in Texas history. He said the move could lower lake levels to below 600,000 acre-feet, which could mean the City of Austin fails in delivering enough water for drinking and other purposes to residents and businesses. LCRA staff disagreed that lake levels would drop below 600,000 acre-feet even if the rains stop and rice allocations were met.

During the same meeting, residents living around both lakes expressed concern that extreme low levels in the reservoirs could rob them of water frontage and recreational opportunities and would adversely affect the local economy because of loss of lake users and visitors.

In spite of the LCRA board’s decision, the issue must go before the TCEQ once again before it becomes an approved plan, and some are saying they expect the Ducks Unlimited argument to carry a great deal of weight as it puts a different face on the environmental impact of restricting water from Texas ricelands.

“This is the last intact rice prairie wetland complex of its size remaining in Texas, and the Colorado River is a critical migration landmark running right through the middle of it. I cannot overstate the importance of this area for waterfowl and wetland wildlife,” Brown added.

He emphasized that for every 10,000 acres of flooded ricelands lost, the region loses the ability to support 120,000 waterfowl, and another year of water restrictions, especially in the fall season, would take a major toll on wildlife in Texas.

After LCRA’s decision last week, the issue now goes before TCEQ officials who must make the final decision on whether to accept the water district’s recommendation or to issue another emergency order defining how, when and how much water can be released for all stakeholders. That decision is expected before the end of the Holiday Season.