Rice farmers dealt another blow in ongoing drought

Rice farmer Joe Crane stands in his bone-dry irrigation canal after being cut off from Highland Lakes water for a third consecutive year (David Yeomans/KXAN)

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality delayed a decision Wednesday that will affect the livelihoods of thousands of people in Southeast Texas.

The meeting was intended to rule on a “trigger level” of the Highland Lakes dictating whether rice farmers will receive irrigation water this year.

Instead, the TCEQ voted to delay the decision and re-visit the issue in about four months.

In the meantime, rice farmers will not receive water from the Highland Lakes for this season’s crop.

The rice industry employs thousands of people in Southeast Texas, and this is the third consecutive year they have been cut off from irrigation water.

With headquarters in the coastal community of Bay City, Joe Crane is a ‘rice entrepreneur’, employing 80 people on 1,200 acres.

“I’ve been in rice farming ever since I was a teenager,” Crane said.

But lately…

“This piece of ground has laid fallow, generating virtually no income to anyone,” Crane said.

Facing three years without LCRA water from the Colorado River, irrigation canals – typically brimming this time of year – are bone-dry.

“This third year here, I’ll tell you as I stand here,” Crane said, “we’re going to have to lay people off.”

During a normal year, Joe’s operation could fill the massive storage containers at his headquarters with about 140 million pounds of rice. This year, however, he’ll only be able to produce about 25 percent of that.

“It is absolutely catastrophic, not only to myself but to the rest of the economy here in the lower basin,” Crane said.

By cutting rows in some of the flat rice fields, Joe will be able to plant a cotton crop – a move that can salvage only some of the dry soil.

“We’re going to do whatever it takes to stay in business until it rains again,” Crane said.

An example of the hard-headed mentality it takes to grow rice in Texas.

“You just have to take advantage of the good years, and suck it up in the bad years,” Crane said. “That’s what it’s about. And that’s what we’re going to do. When it’s all said and done, I intend to still be standing here farming this ground.”

Taking a deeper look into how rice farmers will survive a third year without LCRA water, farmers like Joe Crane are able to plant alternative crops, such as cotton, on some of their rice fields to make up for lost money.

But most of the flat, sandy soil in Southeast Texas won’t support anything but rice – leaving only about 25% of the land suitable for alternative crops.

2011 was the last year water was released for agriculture.

That year, downstream farmers used nearly a half-million acre feet of water. That’s more than twice as much as all cities used.

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