LISSIE, TX (KXAN) - Central Texas has now officially been in a drought for four years.
The lack of rainfall has caused Lakes Travis and Buchanan to fall to 41 percent of capacity .
Nearly everyone in Texas is feeling the pain of this drought, from low lake levels to water restrictions. But rice farmers in southeast Texas may be feeling it the most.
In fact, if the drought continues, the entire Texas rice industry could simply disappear.
According to the USA Rice Federation , rice is grown in 20 counties in Southeast Texas, and has been since the 1880's. Texas provides about 6 percent of the nation's rice.
But with another sunrise over the rice fields of Southeast Texas, comes another day with no easy solution to an ongoing problem.
"Rice is a fairly water-intensive crop to grow," rice farmer Ronald Gertson said. Gertson comes from several generations of rice farmers, and carries on his family's legacy still today.
Growing a first and second crop of rice requires four feet of water per year. That's three to four times as much water as other crops grown in the state, such as cotton and sorghum, require.
"You cannot grow a crop of rice on local rainfall," Gertson said.
If not from rain, the water needed to grow the rice has to come from another source.
Assuming the lake levels are high enough, the LCRA releases specific amounts of water from the Highland lakes for rice farming in southeast Texas. Irrigation canals channel the water to rice fields where it is used to flood the crop.
During 2011, almost half a million acre-feet of water were released from the Highland lakes for rice farming downstream. To put that into perspective, that's about 22 percent of the total capacity of lakes Travis and Buchanan, or one year's worth of water for 1.3 million central Texas households.
"Without it, there would be nothing happening," Gertson said. "In fact, this time last year there was nothing happening out here within three or four miles of where we're standing right now."
That was because in 2012, the LCRA filed an emergency drought relief order with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality . The TCEQ 's approval meant that most rice farmers in the state did not receive a drop.
Some propose using the area's numerous wells to flood the rice fields with ground water instead of using water from the Highland lakes.
"Groundwater is not a viable option for completely replacing the LCRA water because there's only about 15,000 acre-feet of remaining availability among the three counties down here, and that's not going to replace the 250,000 or more acre-feet that are needed to continue irrigating the crops down here," Gertson said.
And if the drought continues, the LCRA could again not release water for farmers downstream. This brings into question the long-term sustainability of rice farming in Texas.
"For one, I'll be doing something else," Gertson said. "All of the farmers and all of our employees, which is probably several thousand folks, will be doing something else."
The rice industry contributes $200 million to the Texas economy and is entirely at the mercy of the upstream water supply.
Some upstream residents in central Texas are concerned about what continued water releases for rice farmers will mean for the drinking water supply for millions of central Texans.
"If this whole lake dries up, what happens," Spicewood resident Pat Mulligan said.
We will hear their side of the debate in the second part of our two-night series, Thursday night at 10 on KXAN News.
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