NPR Story
2:41 pm
Thu November 21, 2013

Central Texas Farmers Could Lose Water Access Due to Drought

Half of Texas is experiencing drought conditions, and for the third year in a row, rice farmers in Central Texas may be cut off from water supplies because of severe drought.

The Lower Colorado River Authority has asked the state to approve emergency plans to cut water to farmers in 2014 if reservoir lakes are at less than 55 percent capacity. The lakes are currently 36 percent full.

Homes and businesses would also face water restrictions.

Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson gets details from Mose Buchele, energy and environment reporter for State Impact Texas.

Guest

Copyright 2013 WBUR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

This is HERE AND NOW.

Rice farmers in Central Texas may be forced to go another year without water for their crops. The Lower Colorado River Authority voted this week to ask the state for permission to withhold irrigation water for farmers if the state's reservoirs aren't at least half full, and they aren't. Because despite heavy rains last month, drought conditions persist in most of Texas. Mose Buchele joins us from HERE AND NOW contributing station KUT in Austin. He's part of the StateImpact Texas reporting project on energy and environmental issues. Mose, welcome.

MOSE BUCHELE, BYLINE: Thank you.

HOBSON: Well, how are farmers reacting to this decision, and how have they been dealing with this for a couple of years now?

BUCHELE: They're pretty upset. They're pretty angry. And as far as how they've been dealing with it, you know, a lot of them do have crop insurance. So, while they haven't been able to grow rice in this region of Texas for a couple of years, they've been able to avail themselves of that. Every year that they're cut off from water, there's a lot of talk about how this could be the kind of death blow to that form of agriculture in Texas.

And every year that it happens, you know, that kind of talk gets more serious. So there's a lot of anger. There's a kind of sense of betrayal on, you know, in a sense that, on the part of the farmers, that this water authority is favoring urban interests against rural interests.

HOBSON: Yeah. I see that there is a quote from a fifth-generation rice farmer who says that threshold is too high. He's talking about the threshold that the lake would have to be at in order for farmers to be able to get some of the water. He says it's disappointing. We recognize this is a drought-created condition, but the authority is placing too much of the burden on downstream users. He's saying they should be looking at cities, as well, people watering their lawns.

BUCHELE: Yeah, absolutely. You know, the counterargument to that, of course, is that the reservoirs right now - these are reservoirs that feed cities like Austin and a lot of really booming Central Texas communities - they're at 36 percent full. They're under half full. And if we get another year like, say, we got in 2011, that could put the region in a true crisis kind of condition. It's already very close.

But the argument from the rice farmers is that there should be a different threshold for when they're going to release the water. So, right now, the decision is if reservoirs are half full, they'll still get the water. That's highly unlikely. They like that threshold to be a little lower, so they might be able to get the water, even if there's just a little improvement.

HOBSON: And are people in cities like Austin being impacted at all?

BUCHELE: Yeah. I mean, Austin, for example, has enacted kind of drought restrictions for quite a while now. You know, folks in Austin can only water their lawn once a week. That's one of the big water suckers in urban areas in Texas, is lawn watering. And so that's been restricted. Restrictions on outdoor watering, things like washing cars, stuff like that has been restricted. So there's a feeling, in that sense, that we're still in drought.

When you look around, because we've actually had more rain than we had - well, actually, in October, we had record amounts of rain. Things don't look drought-stricken. It's really a question of where the rain's falling. It's not falling on our reservoirs. So while you may not feel like you're in a kind of drought wasteland, we are still in a serious water shortage, here.

HOBSON: Yeah. When you look at the map of Texas right now, from the U.S. drought monitor, it has a lot less red or dark red on it, because the drought has improved substantially, but still, I think the entire state is in a state of drought, right?

BUCHELE: You know, yeah. If you look at our reservoir levels, we're in a critical situation. But if you look at that map you're referring to, things do look a lot better. And, clearly, they are better than they were when - during the worst of the drought in 2011. The gamble here is whether we'll get more rain, and if we do, where it will fall. If we do not get rain falling in our reservoirs, which is where we get a lot of our water in Texas, then, you know, it's a very, very serious situation.

Just in October, we had flashfloods in Austin. Hundreds of people lost their homes. People lost their lives. You know, we had flooding conditions. That doesn't feel like a drought, right? But very little of that rain fell in our reservoirs. So we're still in a serious water shortage.

HOBSON: I know that some communities in Texas have come up with some interesting ways of dealing with this. Could you tell us about some of those?

BUCHELE: If there's one thing that this has done, it's forced innovation and a kind of new perspective on water use. We have communities talking about toilet-to-tap water now, which is where you actually take your sewage water and you treat it to the level where it can become drinking water again. It's a really hard sell, but there are communities that are moving forward with that technology.

You also have an added focus on conservation, which is a, you know, a solution that is the cheapest solution, and a solution that is probably the most kind of ecologically friendly. So things like lawn watering restrictions - just trying to change people's perspectives. And then really simple fixes, in repairing pipe infrastructure, where you lose billions of gallons of water through leaky pipes, putting in, you know, toilets that are more water smart, that don't waste as much water. Things like that, you know, have really kind of taken off in the state of Texas.

HOBSON: Well, and you mentioned toilet-to-tap. The author Charles Fishman, who's written the book on water, says, you know, at some level we're all drinking dinosaur pee in the end. So...

(LAUGHTER)

HOBSON: It puts it in perspective.

BUCHELE: We all live downstream from someone, right?

HOBSON: Exactly. Now, the state of Texas recently passed Proposition 6, which moves $2 billion from the state's ironically-named Rainy Day Fund to pay for water projects.

BUCHELE: Yeah.

HOBSON: What kind of projects are being considered?

BUCHELE: There's a whole range of projects that they'll be looking at. And those range from kind of huge, big money, high-tech projects like toilet-to-tap or desalination, something a lot of people talk about that's, you know, it's very expensive, but some folks that that's the type of thing we should be looking at. Huge reservoirs. There's, right now, you know, they're beginning work on a reservoir that would feed these rice farmers that we're talking about, it would feed them water downstream from Austin.

So if it rained in that reservoir, they could get water from there rather than take water that's also being used by the Central Texas communities. Then, there are more modest and probably lower price tag projects. Things like I was referring to, where you talk about fixing leaky pipe infrastructure...

HOBSON: Right.

BUCHELE: ...encouraging conservation, stuff they could just save a lot of water that wouldn't be as kind of grand, but could actually really also help out.

HOBSON: But in the meantime, Mose, not a lot of rice farming being done in the state of Texas.

BUCHELE: No. Assuming that this is approved by the state, which is highly likely, and assuming that we - that our reservoirs don't reach this threshold, which is also highly likely, there will not be rice farming in - downstream from Austin, Texas, or at least not much of it for the third year in a row. And, you know, then that is something that is causing a lot of concern down there.

HOBSON: Mose Buchele is an energy environment reporter for KUT's StateImpact project. He joined us from Austin. Mose, thanks so much.

BUCHELE: Thank you.

HOBSON: And Meghna, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration today released their annual winter outlook. They are predicting that winter is unlikely to offer any relief to Texas and southwestern states. And I'm looking at a map. We've got a link at hereandnow.org. This is the U.S. Drought Monitor map. It was released today, and it shows you the parts of the country that are in drought conditions right now, severe drought everywhere from California, Nevada, Utah, Texas, Kansas, Iowa, Illinois - it is just very widespread. We've got a link to that at hereandnow.org. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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