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Coalition proposes LCRA buy out rice farmers’ rights

Thursday, February 28, 2013 by Michael Kanin

A Highland Lakes interest group is pushing for Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) officials to acquire rice-farming rights from downstream agricultural interests.


The Central Texas Water Coalition suggests that the move would be far more cost effective than the construction of off-stream reservoirs in southeast Texas.


LCRA officials are hesitant about the idea. Spokesperson Clara Tuma noted that the coalition’s proposal “does not appear to add new water supply” to the organization – one of LCRA’s major current goals. Tuma also indicated that there could be “considerable legislative action about LCRA advocating a buyout program that would likely put an industry out of business.”


“We welcome constructive dialog about this important issue,” Tuma continued, “but are hesitant to give attention to a proposal that would detract from the LCRA’s goal.”


Local public relations figure Don Martin represents the coalition. He called the LCRA’s hesitance “kind of ridiculous.” Martin suggested that the coalition’s proposal would save the organization – and its ratepayers – significant money. “Their solution is to build these very expensive reservoirs,” he added. “But that statement is missing the point entirely. The question is, can we afford downstream storage if it costs $200 million per reservoir, and who will pay for it? For less costs than just the first reservoir alone you can make a substantial dent in reducing the downstream water needs by using the money instead to buy farmland from willing sellers, or buy rice farming rights.”


Barring a deluge of biblical proportions, LCRA officials will cut off the supply of water apportioned to rice farmers in far southeast Texas tomorrow.


That’s when LCRA staff will measure combined Highland Lake storage levels. If that figure is below 850,000 acre feet – an inevitable fact – downstream agriculture will go without Colorado River water for the second year in a row.


Austin Water Utility director Greg Meszaros told In Fact Daily that the curtailment and the ongoing drought that caused it have combined to bring “a lot of head scratching for LCRA” about the future of releases to downstream agricultural interests.


The City of Austin is what is known as a firm water customer. As such, the supply it pulls from the Lower Colorado is guaranteed at a technically higher level than that of the downstream farmers.


Downstream supplies are called interruptible, thanks to the fact that those flows can be curtailed when water levels are low. Until last year, this had never happened.


Facing what looked to be a record drought at the beginning of 2012, LCRA officials dramatically cut irrigation supplies to rice farmers last year. Meszaros suggests that the pending 2013 cut may just be the start of a reconsideration of what has been a longstanding policy.


“I think the future is more and more interruptions and less and less water for downstream Ag.,” he said.


Indeed, a new Water Management Plan approved by LCRA directors in 2012 seemed to build-in a handful of concessions to highland lakes interests – policies, that, if enacted, would limit the “open supply” policy for agriculture customers in good years. (See In Fact Daily, Feb. 23, 2012.) According to LCRA press, it also gives the organization “more flexibility to respond to severe droughts.”


LCRA officials submitted the plan for final approval from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in January. 


Concerns about the impact of that action continue to pour forth from downstream interests worried about the survival of rice farming on the Texas coast. In recent days, Highland Lakes interests have added their collective voice to the discussion.


Council Member Bill Spelman brought a bit of logic to the argument. “The reason you have rice farms in the delta at all is because water from the Colorado River is really cheap,” he told In Fact Daily. “The reason that Colorado River water is really cheap to agriculture in the delta is because it’s leftover water…If, however, (the water) is needed upstream, it is not spare water. It is a scarce resource that is actually needed by paying customers and it doesn’t really make a whole heck of a lot of sense for the LCRA to hawk it at a reduced rate – it’s not spare.”

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