AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - A Texas water supplier has scheduled a Tuesday vote on whether to withhold irrigation water from downstream rice farmers for a third consecutive year.
The Lower Colorado River Authority set the vote on a drought-related emergency plan. It would require the authority's two key reservoirs near Austin to have 1.1 million acre-feet of water on March 1 before making any water available to farmers, the Austin American-Statesman reported. That is higher than the 850,000 acre-feet threshold used in the past two years.
Each acre-foot is the amount of water needed to flood an acre to a depth of 1 foot. As of Friday the two reservoirs, Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis, held about two-thirds the water required under the proposed plan. The lakes haven't reached the proposed threshold since July 2011.
Texas is one of the largest rice growers in the nation.
The emergency plan also will require Austin and other municipal customers to restrict water use for the first time.
Lakes Buchanan and Travis, collectively called the Highland Lakes, are now at 36 percent of their capacity, and LCRA officials told the American-Statesman that it would be unlikely that the lake levels will reach the proposed threshold in time to be of benefit to the rice farmers of Colorado, Matagorda and Wharton counties.
That threshold is too high and unnecessary, said Ronald Gertson, a fifth-generation Wharton County rice farmer. A third consecutive year without water from the Highland Lakes could be the last straw for many growers and related businesses.
"It's disappointing. We recognize this is a drought-created condition," he told the American-Statesman, but the LCRA "is placing too much of the burden on downstream users."
Some growers have covered some of the shortfall with water from wells, but more than 50,000 acres were taken out of cultivation in the first year. That has had a ripple effect throughout the economies of the three downstream rice counties, which provide 5 percent of the nation's rice crop.
"The last thing we want to do is drain the lakes," said Mitch Thames, president of the Bay City Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture. "But this looks to me like they are hoarding water and not managing it. Where is the shared sacrifice? They are still watering their lawns and filling their pools in Austin."
However, the authority says the higher threshold is needed to give the lakes additional time to recover from the drought.
"These are some of the most difficult decisions" in the LCRA's 80-year history, general manager Becky Motal told the newspaper. "Right now, this drought is so severe it's not possible for everyone to have all the water they want."
The higher threshold is not enough for some critics. Any threshold of less than 1.4 million acre-feet is too risky, said Jo Karr Tedder, leader of the Central Texas Water Coalition.
"You just can't risk the drinking water supply in Central Texas to send it downstream. The lakes need time to recover, and they won't if water is released," she said.
In the meantime, the LCRA is proceeding with plans for a new Wharton County reservoir to serve the rice farmers and aims to have it ready by 2017.