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Downstream of Austin, Texas rice farmers face another year without Colorado River water

A rice farm
Filipa Rodrigues
Because rice farming is so water intensive, many wonder whether the industry will survive in Texas.

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Talking on the phone from his tractor in Colorado County, Texas, Craig Guthman said he was not surprised to hear water would not be available for rice farmers like him this year.

"I was pretty much expecting it. We've been watching the lake levels," he said, referring to the Highland Lakes.

The lakes sit well over 100 miles away from his farm, upstream on the Colorado River. These are the reservoirs that supply water not only to Austin, but also to agriculture and industry downstream.

A graphic shows the Texas "rice belt" downstream of the Highland Lakes.
Lower Colorado River Authority

Ever since drought took serious hold last summer, the reservoirs have been depleted enough to trigger an automatic cutoff for farmers who hold “interruptible” water contracts with the Lower Colorado River Authority, the agency that manages the reservoirs.

Those cutoffs began last July, and the LCRA announced Thursday they would continue this year.

“LCRA’s state-approved Water Management Plan requires it to cut off Highland Lakes water to agricultural customers ... based on the intensity and duration of the drought,” the agency said in a press statement.

That water management plan was adopted after the drought of 2011, which remains the worst single-year drought in Texas history.

Early in that drought, water sent downstream for agriculture reduced the reservoir storage in the Highland Lakes considerably. It was so low some worried it put reserves for cities like Austin, with firm water contracts, at risk.

“During hot, dry times like these, the plan requires the curtailment of water to interruptible customers so LCRA can continue meeting the needs of cities, businesses and industries," John Hofmann, LCRA executive vice president of water, said in the statement.

Guthman says that some farmers in his area will use groundwater to keep growing rice, but tens of thousands of acres will now go uncultivated this year. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that a new reservoir which was constructed after the 2011 drought to help farmers is still not up and running.

"When they were filling it up, the water was ... running straight back into the river," he said. “They're trying to seal it and line it ... to where that thing will hold water and do what it is supposed to do.”

He says crop insurance should soften the blow for the owners of approximately 250 rice farms that cultivate roughly 160,000 acres of cropland near the Texas Gulf Coast. But the rest of his community doesn’t have insurance to fall back on.

"The support industries are the ones that are really going to suffer,” he said. “It's our flight services, our chemical companies, our seed companies, our rice driers, and just the local economy is going to take a major, major hit.”

“It all starts with rice,” he said. “And rice has to have water.”

Rice farming is extremely water intensive – so much so that many have wondered whether the industry will survive in Texas, as water scarcity continues and water demand grows.

"To be really honest with you," Guthman said, "it is a major concern in this area."

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Craig Guthman’s last name.

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Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
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