Water-guzzling rice farmers may see drier years in the future, thanks to the new water management plan approved by the Lower Colorado River Authority Wednesday in a 10-5 vote . The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality must now sign off on the plan.
The new water management plan will give the LCRA new ways to cope with extreme drought. The Texas Tribune 's Kate Galbraith summed up the plan this way:
[T]he upshot of the plan ... is that in the future, rice farmers are likely to get less water from the lakes, especially during dry years. The farmers' water is categorized as "interruptible," meaning that their supply can get cut off during a drought, in contrast with cities, which must have water even during drought. However, the farmers get their water far more cheaply than cities.
"Who deserves water more? The first one in line, or the one who’s willing to pay more for it?" asks StateImpact's Terrence Henry. "That’s one way of looking at the ongoing 'water war' on the Lower Colorado River between rice farmers in Southeast Texas and residents and business along the Highland Lakes upstream from them."
Rice farmers grow two crops a year, but under the new plan a second batch of water would be released to them only if lake levels are high enough, Galbraith wrote. (This means lake levels would be checked twice a year, in January and June, not once as under the current plan.)
A sixteen-member committee made up of various stakeholders drew up the plan, which requires "compromise and sacrifice on all sides," Henry noted at StateImpact. But, like most things that require compromise, the plan is being criticized from all corners, and it's no surprise that the rice farmers were among those most displeased. “[The plan] can mean disaster,” said Haskell Simon, with the rice farmers advisory committee, told StateImpact's Mose Buchele. "There would be consecutive years where no water would be made available for our crops down here in Matagorda County."
The Austin American-Statesman pointed out that the vote was "roughly divided between dissenting board members representing downstream rice farming counties and approving board members representing Travis County, Hill Country counties and electric service area representatives."