Newly appointed Texas Commission of Environmental Quality (TCEQ) Executive Director Richard Hyde, knowingly or not, drew a line in the sand Jan. 27 when he approved the Lower Colorado River Authority's (LCRA) controversial request for emergency drought relief for 2014.
The order, if allowed to stand, would effectively cut off irrigation water to Texas rice growers in Matagorda, Colorado, and Wharton counties, the state's premier rice growing region, for a third straight year. The emergency order would also affect LCRA customers in Fayette and Bastrop counties as well.
While Hyde's action must be ratified, altered or changed when the full TCEQ Commission meets for their regular meeting Feb. 12, in Austin, many of those opposed to the emergency order have expressed concern that Hyde is placing his signature on the order before the full Commission has a chance to rule on the issue.
Ronald Gertson, chair of the Colorado Water Issues Committee, a group representing rice farmers in the three-county region, says farmers depend on irrigation systems using water provided by LCRA. He said without irrigation there simply isn't enough water to grow the usual crop.
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As a result, over the last two years rice growers have curbed rice production by as much as 50 percent and were forced to pump all the groundwater they could to keep remaining fields productive. Gertson says farmers in the three-county region grow about 40 percent of the state's rice.
"This recommendation is catastrophic to agriculture and it amounts to water inequity," Gertson said. "We are paying the price of the drought with our livelihoods while some residents upstream are using more than five times more water a day than the state recommends."
Allowing LCRA to impose irrigation restraints like the one currently before the TCEQ to permit upstream users to use large volumes of water for non-essential purposes could set a precedent for the rest of the state. It also indicates whether uses like water skiing, boating and washing cars are of greater importance than growing food.
"To a large extent this case is like a canary in the coal mine, not just in Texas but in some ways all across the industrialized world as it can greatly influence the way water is allocated. It raises the question of whether agriculture is important enough to set aside excessive lawn watering, sparkling clean cars, lush green golf courses and such, versus growing food crops that feed the world," he said.
Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape, also unhappy about LCRA's recommended curtailment, recently told his County Commissioners it wasn't the emergency drought request that was troubling as much as the arbitrary increase for the threshold for water release from the Highland Lakes. For the two previous years, LCRA sought and was granted a similar emergency drought request, but the threshold, or lake level trigger, was set at 850,000 acre-feet. If levels fell below that trigger, then irrigation water would not be released from upstream dams.
Pape says, according to LCRA arguments made over the past two years, the 850,000-acre feet trigger level was sufficient to maintain enough water to meet the needs of firm customers in Central Texas like the City of Austin and surrounding communities; in other words, it "guaranteed adequate drinking water and enough water for other necessary uses for Central Texas communities."
But when LCRA requested emergency drought approval for 2014, that trigger level was increased to 1.1 million acre-feet. In a hotly contested meeting, the LCRA board narrowly passed the new request by an 8 to 7 vote, and only after dissenting board members offered a number of alternatives to raising the trigger.
“It’s more than twice what the water management plan calls for,” Pape complained. "And if there is no more consensus than that, they should ask the stakeholders to get together and work it out."
County leaders rally rural residents
By a unanimous vote, Bastrop County Commissioners approved and signed a resolution last month opposing TCEQ's pending ratification of LCRA's request.
"It has to stop somewhere because if they (LCRA) are allowed to cut off rice farmers downriver, it's just a matter of time before they do it to us as well," Pape argues, and he is not the only one.
The County Judges of Bastrop, Fayette, Colorado, Matagorda, and Wharton counties have signed a letter encouraging residents of their respective counties to rally against the issue and speak out against the emergency order at the Feb. 12 meeting.
In addition to the financial burden created by taking water away from farmers, Gertson, Pape and others say rural economies are greatly affected in many ways. Rice production requires milling and other support industries. No rice means those jobs disappear, increasing unemployment levels. And Pape says a lack of flowing water in the river robs downstream counties of recreational revenue.
He told county commissioners that even without additional rain this year, there is enough water in the Highland Lakes currently to provide drinking water to Austin residents for the next three years.
"The problem of a water shortage is being amplified because residents in Austin are using a great deal of water for non-essential purposes. During times of drought every stakeholder must be responsible and employ conservation measures. We do our part, and we believe the residents of Austin should do their part," he argued.
The issue comes before the full TCEQ Commission at their Feb. 12 meeting, being held at 9:30 a.m. at the TCEQ office, 12100 Park 35 Circle, Building E, Room 201S, in Austin.