RICHMOND, Texas -- Although not unexpected in the face of ongoing drought conditions, Ducks Unlimited is once again disappointed in the decision to restrict the water supply to rice growers for the coming growing season.
Waterfowl, wading birds and other wetland wildlife will face yet another year of reduced habitat availability in the critical wintering area of the Texas Mid-Coast. Severe drought continues to plague the region, including the Highland Lakes watershed that supplies irrigation water for agriculture on the Texas Mid-Coast.
"We understand that the (Lower Colorado River Authority) must take a conservative approach when dealing with limited and unpredictable water resources, and we continue to support LCRA's proactive decision to move forward with the construction of a proposed off-channel reservoir in the lower basin. However, withholding water from rice growers for a second straight year represents another setback for wintering waterfowl and an insurmountable economic challenge for local economies dependent on agriculture and waterfowl hunting," said Dr. Todd Merendino, Ducks Unlimited manager of conservation programs.
According to a Texas AgriLife economic impact analysis, on average, rice contributes $374.3 million and more than 3,300 jobs annually in Colorado, Wharton and Matagorda counties alone. Those numbers do not include rice farming's substantial contribution to the revenue and jobs generated from waterfowl hunting and other outdoor recreation.
Those same rice-producing lands provide important waterfowl habitat that is the basis for the region's waterfowl hunting heritage. The loss of that rice acreage will not only be a substantial economic blow to the many farmers, communities and service industries related to rice agriculture; it will double current waterfowl habitat shortfalls along the Gulf Coast.
Recent research already indicates that lack of adequate habitat along the Gulf Coast is impacting the health of some species. Approximately 60 percent of the estimated 1.96-million-bird midwinter waterfowl population for the Texas Mid-Coast is expected to rely on ricelands (active and idle flooded rice fields) to meet their food needs. In addition, the Gulf Coast Joint Venture identifies specific population objectives for more than 12 million shorebirds and wading birds that are highly dependent on water in ricelands for nesting, migration and wintering habitat.
"A recent suggestion by the Central Texas Water Coalition (CTWC) indicating that wildlife would be better served by LCRA simply buying out the rice farmers is completely unrealistic," said Kirby Brown, DU conservation outreach biologist.
The effort would require the outright purchase of approximately 58,000 acres that are farmed for rice each year. With land costs of approximately $3,000-4,000 per acre, such a buyout would require between $174 and $232 million. Rice is grown on a three-year rotation in Texas, meaning the buyout of all 150,000 acres managed for rice would cost between $450 million and $600 million.
"Even if the financial resources for such a buyout were available, the land would still require intensive annual management (now provided by rice growers as part of annual growing operations) to provide the needed resources for waterfowl and other migratory birds. Additionally, water would still be needed to flood the habitat beginning with the arrival of early migrant shorebirds and waterfowl in August -- so we do not view the CTWC suggestion as a feasible solution to provide habitat for waterfowl nor to increase water resources," Brown said.
For every 10,000 acres of flooded ricelands lost, the region loses the ability to support 120,000 waterfowl. While the current impact of the LCRA decision cuts off water to more than 50,000 acres of ricelands used by waterfowl, setting aside 10,000 acres of idle land as CTWC recommends will not provide anywhere near the same habitat values for waterfowl and other wildlife.
"The resources provided by these flooded agricultural habitats are critical to waterfowl for overwinter survival and subsequent reproduction in the spring. Even if landowners are interested in selling, buying them out and allowing the land to go fallow and dry will drastically reduce available waterfowl habitat. Without annual management to promote favorable waterfowl habitat conditions, these acres would essentially provide no resources for waterfowl and other wetland-dependent wildlife. Equally important, the suggestion does nothing to address the long-term need to develop additional water supplies in the region," Brown said.
With projections predicting a doubling of the population in the state over the next 50 years, water availability will become an increasingly difficult issue. Ducks Unlimited is committed to ensuring wildlife habitat needs are fully communicated so that decision makers can make the most informed water allocation choices.
"If there is any silver lining, perhaps it is that the ongoing drought has increased awareness of the urgency with which the state should address water needs. We need to be working together across all user groups and geographies to conserve water resources every step of the way, and to ensure that future generations of Texans, business owners, wildlife and waterfowl all have sufficient water resources to thrive in the Lone Star State," Brown said.
Ducks Unlimited Inc. is the world's largest non-profit organization dedicated to conserving North America's continually disappearing waterfowl habitats. Established in 1937, Ducks Unlimited has conserved more than 13 million acres thanks to contributions from more than a million supporters across the continent. Guided by science and dedicated to program efficiency, DU works toward the vision of wetlands sufficient to fill the skies with waterfowl today, tomorrow and forever.
For more information on our work, visit www.ducks.org.