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Drought Threatens Texas Rice Farmers' Future

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    NEWSLETTERS

    NBC Bay Area

    Brothers Stewart and Kirby Savage should be out right now, planting rice, a crop that their family has grown in Matagorda County for nearly a century. But here they sit, in their low-slung office along Texas 60, talking water, or the lack of it.

    The Savage family, like many rice farmers, are facing a third year in a row without irrigation water from the Colorado River. That's because Texas officials have cut off deliveries to maintain reservoirs near drought-stricken Austin, more than 100 miles away.

    This would have seemed ludicrous not too long ago. For decades, farmers had all the water they could use from the Colorado. They now are idling land, laying off workers and wondering whether they have a future in cultivating rice.

    The Savage family, for one, will try for the first time to grow corn, a less profitable crop but one that does not require the copious amounts of water that rice does.

    "We have to diversify if we still want to farm," said Stewart Savage, an affable 53-year-old who has worked at the farm nearly his entire life. "But we can't grow enough corn to sustain (the five-family operation). We are not swapping dollars" by switching crops.

    In a season of hard decisions in the Texas rice belt, growers and owners of related business say they are trying just to get to next year. Maybe it will rain by then. But it's clear farming's hold on the land is fragile.

    "Farmers are seeing the nasty end of population growth," in Austin and other places upstream, Ronald Kaiser, a professor of water law and policy at Texas A&M University, told the Houston Chronicle. "We are probably looking at a long-term transition" for agriculture.

    The Colorado rises in West Texas, winds through the Hill Country and bisects Matagorda County before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. Farmers on the coastal plains began drawing from the rain-fed river in the 1880s.

    A half-century later, the Lower Colorado River Authority built a chain of reservoirs in Central Texas to generate power, tame floods and provide a reliable supply of water for farmers and others. The state's population has surged since then, with more and more people moving into communities that barely existed, if at all, when the dams were constructed.

    Texas projects the population of the lower Colorado watershed to double to nearly 3 million people by 2060, and it's apparent that there is not enough water to meet everyone's needs. The persistent drought only has heightened tensions among those who rely on the river.

    Historically, growers are the largest users of Colorado water. Rice is a water-intensive crop, grown in fields flooded at 3 to 4 inches deep. In Matagorda County alone, farmers have built about 400 miles of canals to carry the river water to the cropland.

    With enough water, rice farmers can harvest twice, once in July and again in October. But their supply is interruptible during dry times - unlike shares for municipalities and industry, which pay a significantly higher rate than irrigators.

    In 2012, with low water levels in the reservoirs, the river authority took the unprecedented step of withholding water from the farmers. It happened again last year. And again earlier this month, the start of the growing season.

    The river authority said it could not deliver water to farmers because of record low flows into the reservoirs. The lakes are now 38 percent full, meaning any release would threaten the water supply for more than 1 million people living in and around Austin, state officials said.

    The river authority plans to build at least one reservoir in rice country to store rainfall on the coastal plain and ease the burden on the Central Texas lakes, but the first one will not be completed until 2017.

    Its emergency orders, meanwhile, have sent a jolt through Colorado, Matagorda and Wharton counties, which usually produce 5 percent of the nation's rice crop. The three-county area lost more than 1,200 jobs in the first year without irrigation water from the river, according to a Texas A&M analysis released this month.

    The hardest hit was Matagorda County, where more than 90 percent of its rice acreage went unplanted in the first year without water from the Colorado. As a result, the direct value of its rice production plunged from $20.7 million to $2.4 million, the Texas A&M study found.

    "The Colorado River is the economic lifeblood of Matagorda County," said Haskell Simon, a longtime rice farmer who has been unable to grow a crop since the restrictions began.

    And it's not only the farmers who are hurting. A crop-duster went out of business, and a fuel supplier stopped making bulk deliveries to farms in Matagorda County.

    BU Growers, for one, expects to see sales for seed rice and its drying and storage services drop 75 percent this year from levels three years ago. The company is looking more to Louisiana for rice to meet its brokerage contracts.

    "I feel like I have one foot in the grave," said Joe Crane, BU Grower's managing partner.

    Still, the consensus seems to be that Bay City, Matagorda County's seat, won't die soon. But the 17,500-person town understands that its future remains intertwined with the farmers.

    The businesses tied to agriculture "can come and go," Crane said. "But if the growers go, we won't be back."

    In the Savage family's office hangs a framed poster-size photograph of three combine harvesters moving across fields full of nearly waist-high rice plants. The scene is from 2011, the last year the farm received irrigation water from the Colorado.

    Since then, the family has returned two of the leased machines to the dealership. There's no reason to keep all of them when there isn't as much rice to harvest, Stewart Savage said as he looked at the picture.

    The family, like others, survived the last two years with the help of crop insurance, but that's going away. The payments for equipment and land and taxes are not.

    This year, the Savage family will be able to pump groundwater for about 500 acres of rice, an organic variety of long-grain American basmati. But the new water supply won't be enough to cover all of the land planted in past years.

    That's why the family is planting about 700 acres of corn, a crop that isn't as thirsty as rice. "We're hoping this is a one-year deal because we want to go back to rice," Stewart Savage said. "Our land is for rice."

    Upstream interests have criticized the rice farmers for growing crops that required too much water and for exporting their product - some of the grain is shipped to Mexico and South America, among other places.

    But the Savage family and other farmers say Matagorda County is uniquely suited for rice because of the clay layer under the thin topsoil, as well as the climate. The price for rice is also better than other crops.

    Rice generates about two times more revenue per acre than corn, said Brent Batchelor, a Bay City-based agent for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, which assists farmers.

    In all, Matagorda County farmers will grow about 25,000 acres of corn this year, up from about 15,000 acres before the restrictions on Colorado water, Batchelor said.

    Meanwhile, farmers will cultivate about 2,500 acres of rice, down from 25,000 acres three years ago.

    Rather than switch crops and invest in new expensive equipment or a water well, Billy Mann will let cattle graze where he once grew rice. "The payout will take too long for me," said Mann, 73, whose two sons are not interested in following him into farming.

    The grim situation keeps Harley Savage, the 83-year-old patriarch who followed his father and grandfather into rice farming, awake at night. He worries about the future for his sons, as well as his two grandsons, Scott and Stew, both in their 20s, who have joined the family business.

    "You never think this is going to happen, that someone is going to tell you that you can't farm," Harley Savage said. "I think about how we can keep this all together. I just don't know if we can support five families on corn."