Struggling to provide water to rice farms along the lower Colorado River, LCRA has started pumping water out of the river to fill two abandoned gravel pits in Colorado County in an effort to develop new methods of providing water for rice irrigation.

Feeling the pressure of greater water demands from growing cities like Austin in recent years, LCRA has also been taxed by the growing demands of agriculture and other industries along the river.

Following last year’s drought, the water authority was forced to reduce the amounts rice farmers could pull from the river, according to LCRA Information Officer Clara Tuma. The reduced water available for irrigation has caused an estimated 60-precent drop in rice production this year.

“Providing water to all of our customers is challenging especially in a dry year,” she said. “This pilot project is collecting water from the natural flow of the river, thanks to winter and early spring rains. A prescribed amount of this water will fill the pits and be used for agricultural irrigation,” she said.

Two locations

Ryan Rowney, LCRA’s manager of water operations, says the gravel pits, pre-existing but no longer in use, are 100 acres and 40 acres respectively and located adjacent to pre-existing irrigation canals in the Garwood irrigation district. Temporary pumps were in operation Friday, May 4.

“We have been negotiating contracts for about six months, tying down the details of how this would work. It’s important to remember that this water does not represent a release from the dams on the Highland Lakes, but is natural flow of the river. If we didn’t catch this water, it would flow by and into the Gulf [of Mexico],” he said.

While winter and early spring rains have helped increase the flow in the Colorado, Rowney says last month was the sixth driest April on record, so the demand for irrigation is going to rise.

“We will be testing the ability of these gravel pits to provide water for agriculture use throughout the course of the summer, and we hope to add more gravel pits to the chain. At the end of the growing season we will evaluate how effective they were in providing additional water for irrigation and hopefully will be expanding on the project,” he added.

Rowney says the idea of using gravel pits to catch water for agricultural irrigation was a collective project of a number of LCRA personnel.

More creative

“We have been studying and talking about ways to be creative with making more water available to rice growers, and one day we stumbled on the idea of catching water in temporary ponds. The pilot grew out of those brainstorming sessions, and we went to work trying to identify areas that could provide what we were looking for.

“We needed existing pits that were strategically located on existing canals, and we needed to see if landowners would come onboard with the idea,” he added. “It is a cooperative effort between LCRA and property owners, and we are hoping it proves to be a successful model.”

While the project will provide much needed water for irrigation, LCRA officials say they realize it is not an answer into itself.

“It's not 'the' solution, but it's clearly a step in the right direction and has the potential to be very beneficial,” Tuma added.

LCRA hopes that water stored in the pits will provide several thousand per acre feet, per year for all affected districts. Pilot testing will continue through the summer to check how well the gravel pits hold water and to develop efficient pumping methods.

Goal for 2017

The project was approved at a special LCRA Board meeting on April 10. Officials say the project is part of LCRA’s commitment to obtain 100,000 acre-feet of new water supply by 2017.

LCRA plans to fill the pits several times over the course of the irrigation season. The water will be pumped from the pits to the irrigation canals to determine if the pits can make the irrigation system more efficient. LCRA won’t know if the gravel pits can achieve that goal until the testing is complete in mid October.

Because of the drought, LCRA will not send Highland Lakes water to farmers in the Lakeside, Gulf Coast and Pierce Ranch irrigation operations this year. LCRA officials say if this pilot project works, it is possible that similar projects could be conducted at other downstream gravel pits.