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Drought May Cause Shutdown of Texas Rice Production

Although recent rains have put a dent in the Texas drought, a day of reckoning looms for the state’s long-grain rice growers, who pump millions into the economy in Southeast Texas each year and account for about 5 percent of America’s rice production. Come March 1, if there is less than 850,000 acre-feet of water in reservoirs along the Lower Colorado River, water managers will be forced to take the unprecedented step of withholding water from agricultural users, which will mean severe cuts to Texas rice production this year.

Texas rainfall departure from average during December 2011. Credit: NOAA.

According to Bob Rose, chief meteorologist with the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), it’s unlikely that enough rain will fall between now and March 1 to reach the 850,000 acre-feet threshold that was established by a recent agreement between the authority and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. An acre-foot is the amount of water required to cover one acre of land to a depth of one foot, and it amounts to about 326,000 gallons.

As of January 30, the highland lakes that serve as the area’s reservoirs held about 758,000 acre-feet.

“This is going to be a huge, huge deal,” Rose said during a presentation at the annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society in New Orleans. “What’s going to happen is that there will be no water for rice irrigation in the Lower Colorado River Basin this year.”

Driving the Lower Colorado River Authority’s decision-making is the need to ensure there is enough water to meet the demand from Austin, the rapidly growing state capital that is completely reliant on water from the Lower Colorado River, as well as other municipalities and users, such as electric utilities that need water to run power plants.

The agricultural water restrictions would hit three Southeast Texas counties the hardest: Colorado, Matagordo, and Wharton. According to a 2011 analysis by the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, the combined direct and indirect economic benefits of rice production and processing in these three counties alone amounts to $675 million, including the support of nearly 9,000 jobs.

“This will be a huge blow to the region’s economy,” Rose told Climate Central. “We have never had a year where we have curtailed their [rice growers’] water or cut them off” completely, he said.

The 2011-12 drought ranks as the state’s most intense one-year drought since records began in 1895. The drought has had major impacts on agriculture in the Lone Star State, particularly for cattle ranchers, causing at least $5.2 billion in agricultural losses during 2011. This includes $1.8 billion in cotton losses, $750 million in lost hay production, and $243 million in wheat losses.

Texas is the largest cattle ranching state in the country, and the dry weather, combined with record summer heat and shortage of affordable feed this year caused many ranchers to cull their herds early or move their cattle to ranches in other states. The Texas cattle herd dropped by 11 percent during 2011, which translates to more than a million head of cattle.

Scientists say the drought is a likely result of a La Nina event in the Pacific Ocean, which tends to depress rainfall totals in Texas, particularly during the winter. However, global warming has likely exacerbated the drought and led to more heat extremes last summer, according to Texas state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon.

Brent Batchelor, who works for Texas AgriLife Extension Service in Matagorda County, said rice growers there are “hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.”

 “They’re very apprehensive because we’re a long ways from getting any water,” he said. He added that even if the reservoirs do rise above 850,000 acre-feet, rice growers would still receive less water than normal through a system of Lower Colorado River Authority-managed canals.

Although it boosted morale, an unusually heavy January rainstorm was not enough to significantly raise reservoir levels, which remain about 100,000 acre-feet shy of the threshold, according to Rose. “We still have about five weeks till March 1, so it’s possible we could see another storm like this. But the overall pattern still looks drier than normal. I’m not very optimistic at this point,” he said.

The Weather Service’s Murphy said the long-range weather outlook calls for a drier than average February, although he noted that dry weather was forecast for December and January, and both months turned out to be wetter than average.