Texas rice industry suffering in drought

Local farmers unsure of survivability if lakes' water withheld again

The combined storage of lakes Travis and Buchanan is still well below the 850,000 acre-feet minimum needed before southwestern Texas agricultural interests obtain any water this season.

Unless nearly 20,000 acre-feet of water flow into the Highland Lakes by the end of the day March 1, downstream rice farmers will be cut off from receiving any irrigation water for the second consecutive year.

"At this point, there has not been enough rain to make it as critical of a situation as it was last year," said Jo Karr-Tedder, president of the Central Texas Water Coalition, which represents lake-area interests.

But for many rice farmers in Colorado, Wharton and Matagorda counties, this is the last year they can sustain such a work

stoppage.

"If there's no water next year, I don't know what you can say about the survivability of the rice industry in general because there won't be any insurance to underwrite the farmers," said Laurance Armour, general manager of Pierce Ranch, a 4,000-acre agricultural operation—one of four downstream rice-farming operations.

Armour said he will farm 500 acres of rice in 2013 because of groundwater wells he has on-site unless the Lower Colorado River Authority allows Highland Lakes water to flow downstream, which he considered unlikely.

But there is still a possibility of a wet-weather pattern emerging in February, state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said. And even if lake levels don't meet the LCRA minimum by March 1, Nielsen-Gammon said a warmer Atlantic Ocean could help produce more severe weather patterns this summer.

"It's more of a matter of roulette—you could get really lucky but more times than not you'll come up with dry [weather]," he said. "Or with hurricanes, you're talking Russian roulette."

The ongoing drought reinforces the need for a more practical water management plan that better takes into account extended dry weather, Karr-Tedder said. Instead, the LCRA has successfully sought out emergency drought orders the past two years, including the most recent order approved Jan. 29 by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

"Any time you have to have emergency drought orders, you have not done a good planning job," she said. "Because this is hard on everybody—down basin and us up here."

By Joe Lanane
Joe Lanane’s career is rooted in community journalism, having worked for a variety of Midwest-area publications before landing south of the Mason-Dixon line in 2011 as the Stillwater News-Press news editor. He arrived at Community Impact Newspaper in 2012, gaining experience as editor of the company’s second-oldest publication in Leander/Cedar Park. He eventually became Central Austin editor, covering City Hall and the urban core of the city. Lanane leveraged that experience to become Austin managing editor in 2016. He managed eight Central Texas editions from Georgetown to San Marcos. Working from company headquarters, Lanane also became heavily involved in enacting corporate-wide editorial improvements. In 2017, Lanane was promoted to executive editor, overseeing editorial operations throughout the company. The Illinois native received his bachelor’s degree from Western Illinois University and his journalism master’s degree from Ball State University.