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Looking At Third Year Of Water Shortage, Rice Farmers Considering Expensive Alternatives

Ryan Poppe
TPR News
Water from the Highland Lakes flows downstream and eventually ends up here in Matagorda Bay.

After being told by the LCRA that they could face a third growing season with no irrigation water, some rice farmers near the Gulf Coast are considering spending millions of dollars to drill for groundwater.

The LCRA decided they were stopping the flow of water downstream from the Highland Lakes because of low lake levels due to drought conditions.

Roland Gurtson, a rice farmer from Wharton County, said he was one of several farmers who has spent the last two years trying to survive on crop insurance.

“The vast majority of farmers have been able to get a preventative planting claim through crop insurance that was sufficient to keep the land rent paid, take care of the payments on their equipment and have a little bit to live off of for the remainder of that year,” Gurtson said.

Gurtson said it’s questionable if insurance companies will provide that same crop insurance for a third year in a row, so he says a percentage of farmers have considered digging irrigation groundwater wells on the land they farm.

“The drilling and the distribution system you’re going to need will run you $400,000-$500,000 that’s in some case more than the land itself is worth,” Gurtson said.

He said in many cases land owners who are building these wells are forcing the tenant/farmer to buy the water from the well on top of the increased rate charge from the LCRA for water that farmers aren't able to use.

Gurtson said 15-20 percent of rice farmers are considering drilling irrigation wells. But he said as this happens more often, groundwater conservation districts worry about the depletion of their own Gulf Coast aquifers in Colorado, Wharton and Matagorda Counties. He said with just the irrigation wells that have been added in the last three years, the aquifer was burdened by 50,000 acre ft. of water.  

Gurtson said the models he's seen show more will taken out of the aquifer this year than is sustainable over a long period of time, which could lead to a greater stage of water restrictions for all three counties.

Why can't they farm something else?

Gurtson said he is asked that question the most.

He said the soil in the Gulf Coast Plains has only 6-8 inches of loose top soil and then there is several feet of impenetrable packed yellow clay, which makes it perfect conditions for water-tolerant rice but bad for every other type of crop.

Ryan started his radio career in 2002 working for Austin’s News Radio KLBJ-AM as a show producer for the station's organic gardening shows. This slowly evolved into a role as the morning show producer and later as the group’s executive producer.