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Texas Drought: Rice Farmers Will Not Receive Irrigation Water

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HOUSTON (AP) — Thousands of Texas rice farmers won't get water for irrigation this year because lakes and rivers remain low after more than a year of drought.

The Lower Colorado River Authority said Friday it won't release water from two Austin-area lakes into the rivers and canals the farmers use for irrigation. The announcement was expected, but notable as the first time in the authority's history that it won't provide the water.

Texas is one of the six largest rice producers in the country, and the farmers in the Colorado River basin make up almost three-quarters of the state's total rice acreage. But without irrigation, many farmers will be able to plant only a fraction of the rice they usually grow, and some won't plant any.

"Farmers were prepared for the almost inevitability of this ... but things came so close at the end, there were some who thought we might get it," said Ronald Gertson, who grows rice in Lissie, about 60 miles southwest of Houston.

Conditions have eased in recent weeks with some significant rains, but two-fifths of the state remains in a severe drought. As of Friday morning, lakes Travis and Buchanan were about 3,200 acre-feet, or more than 1 billion gallons, short of the level they'd need to reach for the farmers to receive water.

A small percentage of farmers, those with senior water rights along the river, will get about 20,000 acre-feet of water. The rest will not get any.

LCRA spokeswoman Clara Tuma had said Thursday that the authority did not expect to reach the 850,000 acre-feet needed to provide water to all farmers.

But even if the lake levels had hit that mark, farmers would have received only 25 percent of the water they needed for their crops for this season, Gertson said. They would have had to break up big fields into smaller ones and do a lot of other improvising to make that work, he said.

"It would not have been the most efficient use of resources," said Gertson, whose family has grown rice in the area for five generations. "So while I'm not happy not to get water, I wouldn't have been jumping for joy to get only 25 percent."

He has estimated he can grow about a third of his rice with groundwater. If he pushes it, he might get about 45 percent of the acres he normally plants. Like many farmers, he had already been looking at what he could do to cut costs and make it through what's clearly going to be a hard year.

The three counties that won't get irrigation water — Wharton, Colorado and Matagorda — are some of the poorest in the state, with poverty levels above the national average. Many farmers in the region alternate between growing rice and ranching, but those with cattle sold off much of their livestock last year as the drought parched rangeland and pushed up hay prices.

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Plushnick-Masti can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com//RamitMastiAP

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