No one will argue that current drought conditions are forcing Texans everywhere to expand water conservation efforts and to reconsider water use as resources shrink as a result of abnormally dry conditions.
But the latest proposal by Central Texas Water Coalition President Jo Karr Tedder that rice farmers should simply sell their farms to lower water demands from the Colorado River to ensure residents of Austin enough water to irrigate their lawns is not only an unfair solution, but one that favors urban development over food production.
To be fair, Tedder and the CTWC are to be commended for aggressively pursuing solutions to help alleviate pressures of the drought and lower demand for water for the present crisis and for years to come. The organization has supported such worthy projects as rainwater harvesting, protecting natural springs, and promoting conservation programs and projects.
But in a March 6 press release, Tedder talks about a “bold proposal” that encourages officials of the Lower Colorado River Authority to abandon plans to construct a series of small reservoirs adjacent to rice farms in Wharton, Colorado and Jackson Counties that would provide water for rice irrigation while reducing demand for extraction of river water during peak times. Instead, Tedder suggests that LCRA purchase rice farms and eliminate the high demand of water rice operations require. The proposal is critical not only of high water use of rice operations but of the reduced price rice farmers pay for water, $6.50 an acre foot compared to Central Texas cities who must pay $151.00 per acre foot for water.
To be certain, the $6.50 an acre price Tedder says rice farmers pay for an acre foot of water is a number disputed by Mike Burnside, a former rice producer who serves on the Texas Rice Producer Board and is an officer of the Texas Rice Research Board. He says rice farmers are paying about $44.00 per acre foot of water. He also says while some power plants and smaller municipalities are paying $151.00 per acre foot of water to LCRA, the City of Austin, the largest municipal user of water from the Highland Lakes, is not. Their price per acre foot is difficult to calculate because of a number of special considerations. Burnside said they receive some water without charge while they pay for some acre feet of water.
40 years of use
There is no argument that rice operations are getting a price break for water used from the Colorado River, and well they should. CTWC’s president criticizes the demand for water from the three Highland Lakes of Central Texas, the same lakes that provide water to the City of Austin. But rice farmers have been using the water from the Colorado River for more than 40 years before the Highland Lakes were created. Rice farmers were among the strongest supporters of building the Highland Lakes in the 1930s because they recognized the value of the dams in easing flooding and making water available during droughts. Without the support of the rice farmers, the lakes might never have been built.
In addition, in Texas, “first in time is first in right” when it comes to water use. It’s not just an idea, it’s the law. Rice farmers were irrigating fields long before Austin became a metropolis. While that doesn’t give them priority rights over the hundreds of thousands of water users in the city, it does qualify them for certain considerations. While Austin has grown by leaps and bounds in recent decades, multiplying the need for water from the Highland Lakes, rice growers have voluntarily reduced rice acres in an effort to share the resources with their urban neighbors. In the 1980s, rice growers in the three-county region reduced rice acres from 450,000 acres to about 170,000 acres in recent years. Last year that number was reduced even further as a result of water curtailment by LCRA.
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Another point of contention is the amount of water purchased by rice growers in the three-county region (Matagorda, Wharton and Colorado counties). Burnside says he believes Tedder is “badly mistaken” about rice growers using more than 300 billion gallons of water each year. Regardless how much water rice growers use, the amount per year continues to shrink.
In January this year LCRA voted unanimously to once again curtail water from the Colorado River for use on rice farms for a second year in a row. The economic impact not only hits farmers hard but entire rural communities in the three-county rice region.
LCRA, recognizing the negative impact on rice operations, devised a plan last year designed to provide some relief. A test reservoir using an abandoned gravel pit was constructed that helped to provide limited irrigation relief to rice farmers. If the project proved successful -- and it seems that it has -- LCRA intended to search for other areas suitable for the construction of three more small ponds that could help rice growers while still reducing demand for river water.
But Tedder opposes the construction of these new reservoirs, indeed any new surface water projects in favor of more conservation efforts. While no one will argue conservation should take a priority to help the current and future water needs of Texas, it is difficult to imagine why new water projects should systematically be ignored as a possible added solution under the right circumstances.
Proponents of any proposal that would eliminate rice farming from the state argue that farming traditions can be maintained by simply switching out rice crops for other types of crops that are not so water demanding. What they may not realize is that to go from one type of farming to another can require massive investment in different types of land and equipment, not to mention farmers have invested years learning to grow one type of crop and it would be difficult at best to switch to a crop they are neither prepared to grow or equipped to handle. Then there is something called farming tradition that farmers, regardless where they are from, take to heart. In many instances, children and grandchildren take up the family farming enterprise and continue to produce a quality crop of rice or corn or cotton or whatever the family has been growing for decades or even centuries.
In addition, something should be said about the responsibility farmers accept in producing food for a hungry world. Food production should indeed be given priority considerations whether the subject is water or land use. When America was founded it was a nation of rural communities. There were few sprawling cities of the time. While farmland has shrunk through the years, urban areas have exploded requiring more resources than farmers ever thought about using.
While most of us recognize the modern world requires both rural and urban development, we should be careful to remember that large urban populations do and will always require food as much as they require water. So when it comes to shutting down or buying out farm land to reduce water use so that urban residents can wash their cars and water their lawns, we need to remember that basic truth.
Again, cudos to groups like the Central Texas Water Coalition, the Nature Conservancy of Texas, the Hill Country Nature Conservancy and others groups of like nature, and to individuals like Jo Karr Tedder who favor conservation and ecological protection and offer solutions that can benefit Texas. But let us remain mindful of the need for a fair balance between the need for natural resources in support or urban development and the need to maintain an environment that continues to support food production. And let’s not forget that farms are businesses as well and their rights to resources should be honored as much as it should for every type of business and for every individual in the state.