Rice farming and other agricultural operations are a critical part of the economy in the Gulf Coast Region of Texas. In the lower Colorado River basin, rainfall is too little and too unreliable to guarantee a good harvest, so irrigation has been used for more than a century. Coastal rice farmers began using the waters of the Colorado River in the 19th century, more than 40 years before the Highland Lakes were created.
LCRA today operates nine major pumping plants that supply water through a 1,100-mile network of irrigation canals in portions of Matagorda, Wharton and Colorado counties. See map of irrigation service areas. The facilities, organized into four service areas — Gulf Coast, Lakeside, Garwood and Pierce Ranch — are capable of transporting water to 91,500 acres annually.
Texas among nation's top growers
Texas ranks in the nation's top six highest producing rice-growing states. (See the U.S. Agriculture Department's rice briefing.) Most Texas rice is grown near the Colorado River in Colorado, Wharton and Matagorda counties, and Texas rice farmers count on water from the river to irrigate land along the Gulf Coast. In addition to rice farmers, LCRA’s customers downstream of the Highland Lakes include a significant number of row-crop farmers, turf grass growers, industries and commercial operations.
Over the years, LCRA acquired three downstream irrigation systems, and their associated water rights, that historically served rice farmers: Gulf Coast in 1960, Lakeside in 1983 and Garwood in 1998. LCRA also purchased the Pierce Ranch water right, but that system is still managed by a private operator. LCRA now holds senior downstream water rights that allow it to pump water directly from the Colorado River to serve farmers and other customers. During the height of growing season, river flows are often insufficient for farming operations. LCRA can make up the deficit by using water stored in the Highland Lakes (specifically lakes Travis and Buchanan), as prescribed by the state-approved Water Management Plan.
State laws, historical factors
Without the support of rice farmers, the Highland Lakes and dams might never have been built. Rice farmers were among the strongest supporters of building the Highland Lakes and dams in the 1930s. They recognized the value of the dams in easing flooding and making water available during drought. LCRA has long delivered water to rice farmers for two basic reasons:
- According to state water law, first in time is first in right. The private downstream irrigation companies that historically served the downstream rice farmers were given the first water rights in the Colorado basin, and these rights are senior to the water rights for the Highland Lakes. LCRA has since purchased the downstream water rights from the private irrigation companies to help serve the basin’s future growth, but today LCRA still uses that water primarily for irrigation, although the irrigation water may be cut back or cut off in a severe drought.
Texas law declares that the state must give preference to certain types of water uses when granting water rights. LCRA's practice of making interruptible stored water from the Highland Lakes available to downstream rice farmers — a water supply that can be cut back or cut off in a severe drought — is consistent with the Texas Legislature's directive. The demand for water stored in the Highland Lakes for downstream irrigation varies greatly from year to year, based on rainfall and the amount of acreage planted. The amount of acreage planted each year can vary a great deal depending on national and global trends. World market prices and production trends, domestic consumption, and price and trade policies all greatly affect the Texas rice industry and its demand for water.