Texas rice farmers have bigger problems to contend with this week than the Mars Foodservice’s voluntary recall of its Uncle Ben’s Mexican flavored rice. Several years of severe drought – and the ensuing competition for water – has farmers fearing for the future of rice production in the Lone Star state.
Ronald Gertson, of the Texas Rice Producers Legislative Group and a rice grower himself, summed up the situation, “Water issues are beginning to dominate the landscape in Texas.” Mars and Uncle Ben’s have always been based in Houston, where rice has been a cash crop since the 1880s. Rice farms once stretched for 100 miles both east and south along the Gulf Coast, where rainfall is typically plentiful.
Rising demand for Colorado River water, upstream around Austin, is a much bigger problem for Texas rice farmers than the Uncle Ben’s recall. Over the past three decades, Austin has become a hipster Mecca. In the heart of Texas, tourism and the population of Travis County are both booming. The number of people living in the city of Austin from 1980 to 2010 more than doubled, mushrooming from 346,000 to over 840,000. The increase has resulted in urban sprawl, much of which has occurred around several man-made reservoirs along the Colorado River known as the Highland Lakes.
Businesses around the lakes, many of which rely on tourism dollars, have an economic interest in maintaining the height of water levels. Sadly, several years of drought conditions have lowered water levels to the point that wooden docks, which were once boat parking for restaurant customers, sit bleakly in dry brown dirt — reminders of a wetter past.
Sparks are expected to fly between rice farmers and Highland Lakes residents at a meeting with Governor Rick Perry’s office on February 12th. Farmers down river have not used Colorado River water for two years, due to low levels. But an organization of lake residents known as the Central Texas Water Coalition (CTWC) has lobbied hard for higher lake water levels, which farmers fear could cripple rice agriculture.
Texas was once the second largest producer of rice in the nation, but with the loss of over 400,000 acres in farmland devoted to rice cultivation, it has fallen to fifth place. “In human terms,” said Gerton, “The amount of rice that would have been produced on that land could have provided 100 percent of the caloric needs for one year for about 840,000 people — the population of Austin.”
Lakes residents contend rice farmers are demanding more than their fair share of the water. Farmers, on the other hand, accuse CTWC of fear mongering for publishing a report stating that the state has not provided sufficient protection for drinking water supplies during times of drought. Having struggled without river water for irrigation two years in a row, growers fear the state will never give it back.
Acknowledging a connection between global climate change and the ongoing drought, Gertson said, “Climate change is a fact. Are we in an extended dry period? Maybe so, but it would be a shame for everybody to start hoarding, when we could get a flood any day that would turn things around.”
Uncle Ben’s recall problems are a temporary hiccup, compared to the bigger issue facing Texas farmers: will there be enough water to keep growing rice?
By Melissa Roddy