A Grain of Doubt

The drought has intensified a struggle over water between rice farmers along the Gulf and city dwellers in Central Texas and, for the first time, 
raised a grim possibility: there might not be enough to go around.
Photograph by Matt Lankes

On a cloudless day in late January, G. W. Franzen gazed at a vast field of dirt and wondered what would grow there. Machines had leveled and tilled the earth and made it ready for rice, a crop that Franzen and his family had grown in Matagorda County for more than half a century. He had hoped to sow in March, so that by mid-May the field would be full of lush, green rice plants, higher than a man’s knee and waving in the wind. It was a hope that grew fainter by the day.

The problem was simple: the thing most needed to grow rice was water, and Franzen was unlikely to get any. Every spring and fall for as long as he could remember, engineers had opened the gates to a chain of lakes in the Hill Country, lowering two key reservoirs, Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis, and sending vast amounts of water flowing more than one hundred miles down the Colorado River toward the Gulf. Pumping plants, installed along the river before World War II, diverted the water into canals and toward tens of thousands of acres of rice fields across Wharton, Matagorda, and Colorado counties. Franzen, a kindly 54-year-old of Swedish heritage with bright blue eyes, could recall learning to swim in the canals as a child. In the forties his father, like his father before him, had taken up rice farming, and after he died, G.W. and his two brothers, together with their mother, had kept the farm; they now worked about 2,600 acres. Every year they worried about the cost of diesel, the market price of rice, and, of course, the weather.

But they had never worried much about water. Now the most intense drought in recorded state history had ravaged Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan, and despite several winter downpours, the forecasts seemed to indicate that the brown, barren rings around the reservoirs’ edges would only be expanding. These predictions, Franzen knew, held implications for others besides farmers. The lakes were also the main source of water for towns and cities across the Hill Country, whose populations had exploded; according to the recent census, Travis County alone had grown more than any other county in the state. Rice farmers had accounted for about 60 percent of the water used in 2011, which, combined with the drought, had caused the lake levels to drop to 37 percent of capacity. If the farmers got the same allotment this year and it didn’t rain, the lake levels would plunge well below 20 percent—a terrifying scenario for everyone else who depended on the reservoirs.

The specter of this shortage had ignited fierce debates and lent urgency to efforts by the Lower Colorado River Authority, the state organization that oversees the lakes, to create a new plan to manage the water.

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