Ronald Gertson usually plants about 3,000 acres of rice each year on his family farm in Wharton County, Texas. But because of emergency water regulations set in 2012 due to central Texas' painfully persistent drought, Gertson could plant about 40 percent of that land.
When fall arrived, Gertson saw flocks of ducks and geese fly in to winter on his fields, as they have since he was a child growing up on his parents' rice farm. But this time, the birds didn't stay.
"We've been hurting now long enough that maybe they're just heading to a different area," Gertson said. "Early in the season, they're here, but there's just not enough here to sustain them so they move on."
The five-year drought in central Texas, the worst since the 1950s, has wreaked havoc on the region's $374 million rice industry. Water restrictions have eliminated about 50,000 of the region's 145,000 acres of rice. Beyond the harm done to rice farms and the people who depend on them, Texas water bird fanciers and the state's $204 million waterfowl hunting industry are becoming increasingly alarmed.
North America's top-producing rice regions -- the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Texas, the Mississippi Alluvial Valley and California's Central Valley -- have come to stand in for vanishing wetlands, supporting about 45 percent of the continent's wintering duck population, according to a 2013 report by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Water birds are forced to concentrate wherever they can find water. Rogers Hoyt, a senior vice president for the conservation group Ducks Unlimited, had an exceptional hunting season on the 650 acres of groundwater-fed rice he owns in Jackson County, Texas, south of Gertson's ranch. Between himself, his family and his friends, last year's total bag was 592 birds.
"The only reason we had more birds is we had water and our neighboring counties didn't," Hoyt said.
2 years of water cutoffs
In the Texas mid-coast area, rice farms generate about one-third of the high-carbohydrate food needed by wintering waterfowl before they migrate north to Canada to breed, said Kirby Brown, conservation outreach biologist for Ducks Unlimited.
"As we look at this drought, and we look at the severity of it, it's a tough one," Brown said. "It's a tough one on everything out there as far as wildlife goes. But it's especially tough if we don't get water for rice."
Ten-thousand acres of rice can support about 120,000 water birds, and the Texas coast hosts about 2 million birds each year, Brown said. Among the 200 bird species that use this land are pintails, blue-winged teals, mallards, snow geese, sandhill cranes and yellow rails.
Rice farmers and Ducks Unlimited members are often one and the same -- many of the organization's leaders own or run rice operations, including its president, George Dunklin Jr. Also, farmers often lease out their acreage to duck hunting outfitters in the fall, obtaining a little extra income. Gertson said that he can make between $10 to $25 an acre per hunting season, depending on how much water is left on the land.
"What's good for rice farming is good for ducks, and generally what's good for ducks is also beneficial for the rice farmer," quipped Hoyt.
On Feb. 4 of this year, the USA Rice Federation and Ducks Unlimited entered into a formal partnership, although the two organizations have often worked together in the past on an ad hoc basis.
Nine days later, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality approved the Lower Colorado River Authority's emergency request to deny water to downstream rice farmers in two central Texas counties for the second year in a row.
'This is no ordinary drought'
The water cutoff is part of a long-standing agreement between the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), which manages the Lower Colorado River Basin's water supply, and rice farmers. Downstream rice farmers are classified as "interruptible" customers, meaning they pay a low rate of about $40 per acre-foot for water released from two artificial lakes, Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis, when Colorado River water supplies run low.
But when these lakes are depleted below a certain point, interruptible customers are cut off in favor of "firm" water customers -- cities, industries and electric power plants -- which pay about $150 per acre-foot. More than 1 million people depend on the LCRA for drinking water, including the city of Austin.
The current crisis originated in 2011, during the worst single-year drought in Texas history. That year, the water moving into the lakes was the lowest volume on record, flowing in at about 10 percent of the average. Despite this, the LCRA abided by its state-approved water management plan, providing rice farmers with water for both their first and second crops of rice. Agriculture accounted for 60 percent of the LCRA's 2011 water use.
In the spring of 2012, water levels in the lakes had not recovered, falling just below the trigger point. In order to guarantee water to its firm customers, the LCRA enacted emergency drought relief measures, and downstream rice farms were cut off. In 2012, agriculture accounted for 21 percent of the LCRA's water use.
When the LCRA had to enact the emergency drought plan for a second time this year, LCRA General Manager Becky Motal said in a statement, "This is no ordinary drought."
"We know going without water will be difficult for farmers, their families, and the local economies, but this is an extraordinary drought," Motal said. "We don't know when it will end, and we have to protect the city of Austin and other municipal customers."
Farmers and hunters vs. city of Austin
Low water levels in the lakes have fueled disagreements over whether rice farmers should receive any water at all.
In July, the Austin American-Statesman's editorial board published an op-ed stating that the dry reservoirs are "a result of the lake authority's mismanagement as much as it is of drought," calling the LCRA's decision to supply water to rice farmers in 2011 "odious" and "indefensible."
On July 31, Jo Kar Tedder, president of the nonprofit Central Texas Water Coalition, wrote a letter to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality alleging that LCRA was giving the rice farmers "huge amounts" of water "at exceeding low prices." That, Kidder asserted, left regular customers "to pay the bills and shoulder the risks during periods of extended drought." The coalition requested that water rates for the farmers be raised to a more "appropriate" price.
Earlier this year, the coalition had requested that the LCRA buy out downstream rice farmers for $100 million, arguing that this would be cheaper and more sustainable than the new, $206 million downstream reservoir that the LCRA hopes to complete by 2017, part of the authority's goal to add 100,000 acre-feet to the region's water supply.
Izzy Neusch, who works for the water coalition, said that her group considered the buyout idea an "out of the box" solution for both the rice farmers and upriver water users. In 2011, she noted, downstream farms used almost 433,000 acre-feet of water -- far more than the proposed reservoir will hold, at 90,000 acre-feet.
"We thought it was a win-win idea," said Neusch, who was formerly a member of Ducks Unlimited. "I'm not sure that flooding [rice farms] is natural and sustainable. Especially in Texas, I don't think that it's realistic. ... We need to look at more sustainable alternative practices to help conserve water."
"Duck hunting is huge down there," Neusch added. "If populations are decreasing so much, maybe not inviting people on your farm to go out on duck hunts could help the populations, as well."
Incoming ducks, departing food and water
Gertson, who now acts as a spokesman for the Texas rice industry, characterized the idea of ending rice farming in Texas as "a knee-jerk reaction," speaking of it as just one of the many troubles that have hit his industry since the drought began. The clay-based soil in central Texas is uniquely suitable for rice planting but not much else, so the majority of farmers cannot transition to other crops.
For the last two years, Gertson and other farmers have recovered their losses through crop insurance. But if the drought continues -- and, according to the Lower Colorado River Authority's projections for the region, this seems likely -- that money may not come through for another season.
"We have been told that three years in, a payment of that sort for crop insurance is highly unusual," Gertson said. "We may not be able to farm anything. There's just a lot of nervousness and unsettledness about the coming year as a result."
The nervousness in the farming community has naturally extended to Ducks Unlimited activists. According to Hoyt, this year's fall flight is predicted to be good, despite last year's drought. However, "we're going to have a big fall flight coming to very little food and very little water, and that makes it difficult for birds," he said.
Without 50,000 acres of rice available for a second year, food and habitat for wintering birds will be severely constricted, Brown said. When birds concentrate in smaller areas, they are also more susceptible to disease. Last year, Brown saw "a tremendous dispersal" of water birds, although Ducks Unlimited has not yet determined how the Texas drought will affect populations down the road.
"They're doing OK, they're holding on, but it's a concern when you lose this amount of water," Brown said.
Better water conservation management and the new LCRA reservoir planned for 2017 might serve to improve the situation in the future, Brown said. But the current drought has already resulted in major habitat loss. Over the past two decades, Ducks Unlimited has worked with private landowners to restore and manage about 60,000 acres of wetlands. During that time, the rice industry came to constitute "an ecosystem unto itself," Brown said.
"Imagine having a little over 50,000 acres of rice removed -- you've just basically eliminated the habitat management work we've done over the last 23 years," Brown said. "It's a dramatic thing. Dramatic."