Because of low water levels in several lakes that serve as reservoirs here, officials said Friday that they wouldn’t release irrigation water to farmers in three counties downstream that produce much of the rice in the state.
The rice industry contributes about $394 million annually to the economy of the state, which produces about 5% of the nation’s rice. The three counties—Colorado, Wharton and Matagorda—lie west of humid Houston and usually get enough rain to make rice farming practicable.
This is the first time in its 78-year history that the Lower Colorado River Authority, which is based here, has cut off water to farmers. The agency waited until the last possible moment—a minute before midnight on Thursday—to make its decision, hoping that water levels would rise enough to avert a cutoff.
The irrigation ban is not expected to affect the shelf price of rice, but it has forced some farmers to lay off employees and consider diversifying into other crops.
“This is my livelihood at stake,” said Ronald Gertson, a Texas rice farmer who projected he would produce only about 40% of his typical rice crop this year.
“It sticks in the craw” of farmers, Mr. Gertson said, that the authority will continue to release water to golf courses and other recreational customers that pay higher rates for a guaranteed water supply.
In a statement, the agency said that farmers “pay considerably less for water than cities and industry. And therefore, their water is considered ‘interruptible’ during a severe drought.”
Texans in the rice business said they could probably stay afloat this year, thanks in part to crop insurance, but they worried about another year of interrupted irrigation water.
“If this happens again, we’ll be in much more trouble,” said Dick Ottis, the president of the Rice Belt Warehouse in El Campo, Texas, which stores and dries rice. The warehouse plans to store more corn, wheat and other commodities this year, he said, but those crops do not produce the profit margins rice does.
“I have already let go about 20% of our employees, because I knew this day was coming about,” Mr. Ottis said, adding that his family had been involved in rice farming for almost 100 years and had lived through droughts, but none this bad.
It always seemed like the good Lord would bless us with more rain,” he said.
But there appears to be little relief in sight from the drought that still afflicts 85% of Texas. Temperatures are expected to be above normal this summer, said John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist.
Rainfall levels are harder to predict, he said, but “we are in a dry stretch now, which will be worrisome if it continues. It reminds me of last year.”
The water agency said it plans to find new supplies of water to avoid a repeat of this year’s problems.
Farmers agree. “The development of new reservoirs is imperative,” said Daniel Berglund, a 49-year-old rice farmer in Markham, Texas, who said he woke up at 1:15 a.m. Friday and checked to see whether the lakes, against all odds, had risen high enough to allow irrigation water to be released.
The source article Texas Rice Farmers Lose Their Water was published March 2, 2012 by Wall Street Journal .