Drought and upstream growth sow grain of uncertainty in the lower Colorado River basin

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2014-08

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Cheap water, massive federal subsidies and political clout have sustained rice farming in the lower Colorado River basin for decades, but now the industry is in a precarious situation. Drought, population growth upstream and economic boom in Austin are pushing out the practice because of increasing demand for Texas’ scarce water resources. The tightening supply of water raised questions about the sustainability of producing such a water intensive crop in the state. Drought has cut off the cheap water to farmers for three years, and a mobilized coalition of upper river basin interests is calling for a permanent end to subsidized water. It’s increasingly clear that the politics of water in a drought-prone future is likely to side with cities, where voters are heavily concentrated. Rice farmers have scrambled to adapt. Larger rice farms have switched to groundwater. Some farmers have swapped rice for corn, milo or soybeans to keep their income. Crop insurance, which made up for at least 55 percent of the money lost in drought, softened the blow for rice farmers. But revenues in rice-related industries in Wharton, Matagorda and Colorado counties have dropped sharply and some businesses have already packed it in. These new realities cast uncertainties throughout the lower river basin, where locals fear this way of life is disappearing.

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