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. For nearly two years, the LCRA had been calling meetings in the Austin area with farmers, city residents, lakeside dwellers, and environmentalists to discuss the shared future of the lakes. But as water levels dropped, the negotiations became more contentious, leading to tense exchanges. (I helped report a series on these fights last summer for the Texas Tribune and NPR’s Austin affiliate.) The squabbling signaled the difficulty of hanging on to Texas’s farming heritage in an era of fast-growing cities and economic diversity, and this tension between old and new, rural and urban, reverberated not just along the Colorado River but through every corner of the dried-out state.

Franzen hoped to drill two test wells to see if he and his family had enough groundwater to grow at least some rice. But the drillers he’d contacted, in high demand around the state, couldn’t get to his farm until May or June. Still, groundwater was probably a good idea: the LCRA’s new water-management plan was being put to a vote in a few weeks, and one of its provisions was to cap, for the first time ever, the amount of water sent downriver to the rice farms. The plan’s basic idea was to keep the lakes fuller for cities and lake communities; it would now require reservoir levels to be assessed two times a year rather than just one, to determine how much water, if any, farmers could obtain. Though the LCRA said it hoped to increase its water supply by 100,000 acre-feet by means of reservoirs or aquifer storage and aid the farmers, Franzen knew this would be years away.

“This is uncharted territory for us,” Franzen told me before we hopped into his white pickup for a tour of the rice fields. We were joined by his brother Derril and 79-year-old Haskell Simon, a Matagorda County farmer who works 150 acres with a business partner, and together we surveyed Simon’s land from the road. Rice farmers across southeast Texas were split on the announced plan: some saw it as an inevitable compromise, while many in Matagorda County, like the Franzens and Simon, felt that the farmers were losing too much. Water conservation was a tough sell here, perhaps more so than in nearby counties, because many farmers rented their land, meaning they were reluctant to pay for measures such as laser-leveling fields to make less water drain off.

Simon, who grew his first rice crop in 1947, had attended the LCRA meetings as a farmers’ representative, and he had been the lone dissenter on the plan when it was put to a preliminary vote. As we talked, he paused often, as if to keep his feelings in check. But looking out over the stubble of last year’s crop, he could not hide his passion.

“Are we wrong in supporting our historic access to Colorado River water?” he asked, peering intently at me through his glasses. “Are we obligated to sacrifice one-hundred-plus years of rice production because the city of Austin wants to maintain its accelerated growth?”

Rice is a notoriously thirsty crop, one that brings to mind images of monsoons and flooded fields. That Texas, a state with severely fluctuating weather, even

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