Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- South Texas rice farmers got some extra time to plan next year's crops -- and pray for rain -- under a drought response compromise approved Wednesday by the Lower Colorado River Authority.

Under the emergency order, which would apply to about 170 farmers, the river authority would cut off water only if the reserves in reservoirs drop below a specified level on March 1. The compromise pushes back the trigger date by two months, allowing more time for rain or backup plans.

"It's not what we wanted, but it gives us the opportunity to have a little bit of water, to keep us afloat, to keep us alive for one year," said Paul Sliva, a Matagorda County rice farmer. "We still know that if the conditions don't change, we're not going to get any water, we know that. They've got to improve quite a bit for us to get any kind of water."

The initial proposal would have halted water releases based on reserve levels on Jan. 1.

No water would be released if the stored water in the reservoirs falls below 850,000 acre-feet on March 1. If the combined storage of the reservoirs, currently at 789,000 acre-feet, reaches between 850,000 and 920,000 acre-feet on March 1, a limited amount of water would be made available for the farmers.

LCRA officials estimate that farmers will use about 450,000 acre-feet of water this year -- more than average because of the lack of rain. An acre-foot is the volume of water needed to cover an acre of surface to a depth of 1 foot -- almost 326,000 gallons, or about what two families of four people each use in a year.

While most of Texas and the Southwest are under moderate to extreme drought conditions, agricultural water rationing and curtailment proposals are becoming more widespread, even affecting parts of the Deep South. Texas is facing one of the most severe droughts in its history.

The affected farmers are in the state's three biggest rice-producing counties -- Matagorda, Wharton and Colorado. Texas produces about 170,000 acres of rice each year, around 5 percent of the nation's total.

"This puts the rice industry on a life support system and if anyone's going to pull the plug, I guess it's going to be God," said Wharton County Commissioner Chris King.

The water authority's board says the move is an emergency measure to save the water that's left. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality must sign off on the plan because it is a deviation from the state-approved water management plan.

But the proposal has pitted the South Texas farmers against several Central Texas communities upstream, including Austin, that depend on the reservoirs for drinking and other utilities.

"We have no other source of water," said Greg Meszaros, director of the Austin Water Utility. Austin, Texas' capital, has seen its population grow more than 20 percent in the past decade. Last year, the city used nearly 139,000 acre-feet of water.

The 862-mile long Colorado River starts near the Texas Panhandle and flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Near the river's middle, water is stored in manmade reservoirs, known as the Highland Lakes. The lakes are used as the primary source of water for Central Texas communities as well as for power generation, recreation and irrigation.

For irrigation, the river flows hundreds of miles downstream, into tributaries and manmade canals spread across farmland, where landowners have agreements with the LCRA. The river authority typically releases reservoir water to about 250 downstream farmers from a series of dams in Central Texas. About 170 of them are subject to being cut off -- meaning water would not be released for the farmers to use -- because of terms in their contracts. Once the water in their canals dries up, they won't get more, other than from the rain.

Under the agreement approved Wednesday, no water will be released until April 1.

Sliva, whose family has been farming in the area for 50 years, worries about the future if it doesn't rain.

"I don't know how many of us can make it without this water," Sliva said.

David Schroeder, executive director of the Wharton County Economic Development Corp., said a move to cut off water would be catastrophic to the region's economy, including farmers, their equipment suppliers and the production companies that depend on them.

"Jobs are going to be lost, second crops aren't going to be able to be done," Schroeder said. "Farms may shut down and prices may go up. This is how important it is for our community to have water."

LCRA general manager Becky Motal said the water authority recognizes that its customers could face financial and operational hardships, and considered its decisions carefully.

Since last October, Texas has seen the driest 11-month period since it began keeping rainfall records in 1895. This Texas summer has been the hottest in the nation's history. Officials say those conditions have increased evaporation on the Highland Lakes and reduced the flows in the tributaries that feed the lakes to a trickle.

Climate experts predict warmer and drier conditions to persist in Texas through the end of the year.

For now, farmers in Texas are trying to come up with backup plans. And they're still hoping for rain.

"We're Texans and we're going to find a way to get through it one way or another," said Wharton County Judge Phillip Spenrath. "Even if it means everybody's got to cut back, we've got to get through this somehow. Until somebody learns how to make it rain."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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