In 2012, some farming districts on the Lower Colorado River were cut off from water for irrigation for the first time. Reservoirs were too low to flood tens of thousands of rice fields. Some asked, “Why would anyone be farming rice in Texas in the first place?”
The answer is long, and it begins with the fact that parts of Texas haven’t always been dry. For farmers like Ronald Gertson, who remembers driving a tractor through rice fields as a child, recent years have been hard to bear.
“It’s just unbelievable that it’s been so bad that we have had three unprecedented years in a row, and I recognize some experts say we could have a couple of decades like this. I hope and pray that’s not the case,” says Gertson, a rice farmer, chair of numerous water-related committees and, in recent years, unofficial spokesman for the Texas Rice Belt. “If that is the case then yeah, this whole prairie is going to change.”
But it has already changed.
Following the Colorado River, heading south on State Highway 71, the hilly woods of Central Texas give way to a vibrant green coastal flatland about a hundred miles from the coast. This is the Rice Belt. Almost all of the land here has been tilled for farming, but along the river’s banks, the old biome is still evident. Tall billowing trees and a thicket of vegetation grows enveloped by vines in the deep, squishy mud.
This is the state’s youngest land – a vast accumulation of sediment, slowly left behind during ages of floods. From the high Hill Country, the Colorado River carried dirt down to the flatlands, extending Texas’ coastline over millions of years. The region was literally created by water.
The floodplain of the Colorado River Basin was a part of Stephen F. Austin’s first land grant from the Mexican government, and it was here that some of the first pioneers from Europe and the United States came to settle Tejas. They found a soggy marsh where the Karankawa people procured vital mosquito repellant from the fat of local alligators, and they saw massive floods that covered miles of prairie with water from rains in higher parts of the state.
The region was a collection of humble backwoods settlements until the turn of the 20th century, when rice farming was brought over from Louisiana. Rice, suited to the fine shallow mud of the floodplain, brought the region to life with business, and the Texas Rice Belt was born. In 1901, the first pumping station was built on the Colorado River in Colorado County and the town of Garwood was founded to suit. By 1914, there were stations in Wharton and Matagorda counties, and hundreds of miles of canals were dug to move water across the prairie.
“Today I believe it can truthfully be said that rice farming has done more to redeem this low level and country of the Texas coast than any other branch of agriculture,” wrote Rice Industry, a Houston-based magazine in 1906. “As rice requires more water than anything else to grow it, here was a crop and a country that were adapted to each other.”
Today that is not the case; the Rice Belt needs water, and there isn’t much to go around.
Born 1931 in Garwood, Anthony Kallina remembers driving a Model A Ford on the one-lane dirt road that eventually became State Highway 71.
“It used to be that every time there’d be heavy rains anywhere around Austin, the river would come out of bank. Of course, Garwood is on the high bank so we didn’t really flood, but right across the ridge the river might be a mile and a half wide. In earlier days, it was even wider than that,” he says. “It hasn’t been out in a good while now. We haven’t had many rains, and they’ve been keeping the floods up above in the lakes.”
He guesses that the last big flood was around 20 years ago. Here’s an important detail to understand the drastic change: When Kallina was born, there were six million people in Texas. Today, there are 27 million and hundreds of communities on the Colorado River system. Eight reservoirs and at least 14 dams have been built on the river and its tributaries in Kallina’s life.
The river destroyed each attempted dam until the late 1930s, when the newly created Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) built Buchanan Dam with money from a federal stimulus program. Early projects sought to tame the ravenous floods that ransacked Austin and to harness the wild river for electrical generation. Quickly, though, the need to store water for the growing population became apparent. By 1951, the LCRA finished the six reservoirs and dams known as the Highland Lakes, which stores drinking water for over a million people in Central Texas today.
In subsequent decades, the LCRA expanded its control as water scarcity stressed the importance of central resource planning in Texas. “[Garwood] had the oldest right to the water, but the owner, Lehrer Interests, sold most rights to the LCRA in the 1990s,” said Lehrer Interests CEO Ralph Savino. “The other irrigation districts had been bought out in earlier decades, and the water authority took full authority of the region’s infrastructure."
After buying the water rights, the LCRA legally owned the water in the Colorado River. They agreed to charge the same rates that farmers had previously paid irrigation companies. Because farmers held the oldest water rights, and naturally got water before dams were built, they were not asked to pay for the infrastructure upkeep that guaranteed water supply to cities upstream.
So each year the authority released billions of gallons of irrigation water, the majority of its annual supply, for a fraction of the price that municipal customers paid.
Lehrer Interests managed to keep Garwood’s guarantee to water in the reservoirs, “because Mr. Lehrer had a very good lawyer,” says Savino. But other districts did not. By contract, districts in Wharton and Matagorda counties could be denied irrigation water if the Highland Lakes ever fell to critical levels, around 40 percent full. Most never thought they’d see that happen.
Texas has seen droughts before, most notably in the fifties and eighties, that have generally struck a decade or more apart. But in the late 90s, a dry spell kicked in, setting off a sequence of dramatically wet and dry periods. The state saw one of its rainiest years in 2007 and its driest in 2011. That same driest year, farmers in the Rice Belt flooded tens of thousands of acres with over 100 billion gallons like they’d done for 100 years. But it would be the last time for several years.
In 2012, 2013 and 2014, the reservoirs helplessly awaited great rains to fill them, but the water never came. Levels stayed under 40 percent, hitting the second lowest point ever in September 2013. For the last three years, most of the Rice Belt hasn’t gotten floodwaters.
The once-wild river from which farmers draw their livelihood now oozes slowly from the base of the Longhorn Dam in Austin to Matagorda Bay on the Gulf. The LCRA sends reservoir water downstream to a nuclear plant, a coal plant and several cities, so the river bed doesn’t dry out. But overall, less water has been reaching the ocean than ever before.
“If you look downstream of Austin, you’re looking at places where the river has been stagnant, algae vegetation has grown in it, and the river has basically stopped,” said Kirby Brown, a biologist with the Lower Colorado River Basin Coalition, at an LCRA board meeting in June.
Like the river, the economy in the Rice Belt isn’t what it used to be. When water was cut for the first year, farmers were relieved to learn that federal crop insurance would cover their losses, but other businesses like crop dusters, storage facilities and tractor depots that also rely on the harvest for income haven’t been so lucky. The rice dryer that Kallina has owned since 1955 is processing about half of what he says it should.
“It’s depressing; it really is,” he says. “Because so many of our businesses closed. All those empty buildings there… It hurts.”
In 2011, Matagorda County planted about 22,000 acres of rice. But without water in 2012, that number fell to 2,100.
Mitch Thames, Director of the Bay City Chamber of Commerce in Matagorda County, says that even local gas stations, grocery stores and car dealerships are feeling the economic losses without a rice harvest in the community. Farm equipment repair shops have lost about 70 percent of their business in Bay City, and one family’s three-generation crop-dusting business has closed completely, says Thames.
“We see that the drought is causing the economic problems that we’re seeing in Bay City and it has been far-reaching. We are feeling the devastation,” says Thames.
Farmers know that crop insurance will eventually end. Many have experimented with other crops and some have found success. But for people like Gertson who grew up farming rice patties, such big adjustments aren’t quickly made.
“I am extremely concerned about this tradition, but I’m not tied to rice. If we can figure a way out to grow something else and make a living off of it, we’ll do it, and we’re trying,” says Gertson.
Wharton County has managed to maintain over half of its standard rice crop since 2012 with water from the Gulf Coast Aquifer. Gertson, who chairs the Coastal Bend Groundwater Conservation District, estimated that 65 new wells have recently been drilled in Wharton County, some operating for the first time this year. The aquifer recharges, he says, but there’s a limit to how fast.
“I am fearful that the level of pumpage that all of these new wells are calling for is not sustainable over the long haul, that we are going to be pumping water out at a faster rate than it can recharge,” he says.
Forecasters can’t agree on how long this drought will last or if current conditions may be a new normal for the state. Rains may pick up, the reservoirs may fill and things may be back to normal in the Rice Belt soon. But Gertson acknowledges the possibility that they may not. In that case, he expects the rice fields to be sold as grazing pasture for cattle – worth just a fraction the price of land that can nourish crops.
Over a hundred years, the Rice Belt changed from a soggy landscape graced with mighty floods to a place where wells are drilled ever deeper in search of water. No one knows what the future holds, but someday many Texans may share the farmers’ memories of a time when precious water came easy.