WINNIE — Driving through rural east Texas, the roads are lined with farm plots as far as the eye can see covered in corn, wheat, and lots and lots of rice.
The town of Winnie (population 3,254) is home to Frost Ranch, a leading rice producer. Perfectly straight rows of green rice alternate with muddy brown ditches filled with water.
Most of the world’s rice is grown in this way, by flooding the fields. Only 30 percent of rice is grown by waiting for monsoons. In Texas, almost all rice is grown with water pumped over from lakes and rivers.
“We get our water from ditches that we let fill up and then use when we need them and from canals connected to the river,” said Ford Frost, the owner and manager of Frost Ranch. “If we tried to farm by waiting for the rain, our yield would probably drop from around 70,000 pounds to 7,000,” Frost said.
To flood the paddies, ranch crews use around three acre-feet of water per acre of rice. That’s almost 980,000 gallons. It costs Ford from $80 to $100 to flood an acre of rice.
By comparison, the average home in Houston uses around 70,000 gallons a year, costing around $312, according to Houston Water’s 2018 water prices and estimates.
People in Houston, who use water from the same rivers and lakes that rice farmers tap, are paying over 130 percent more for water, even though they use far less than farmers.
“The state of Texas charges [farmers] nothing for water except a minor administrative fee,” said Jim Blackburn, a lawyer at Blackburn and Carter in Houston that represents clients in environmental issues cases.
“That just won’t work over time,” Blackburn said. “If we are not paying the full cost of the water, we will not get its allocation right.”
But Frost favors the status quo. “There aren’t too many regulations on water, and there aren’t too few,” he said. “It’s perfect.” The costs and rules around water usage help farmers make a profit without much struggle, he said.
“My father, grandfather, great grandfather all farmed rice here,” said Frost, whose family has been around and farming the land since Texas was a part of Mexico and who doesn’t plan to stop farming rice anytime soon.
There are other growing concerns. Farmers also pump up water from underground aquifers, which may be causing environmental harm; “We do a bad job of setting limits on groundwater usage too,” said Blackburn.
“We started sinking in Houston because of too much withdrawal.”
Competition for water between farmers and big cities like Houston is likely to increase as the city population grows and, if Texas experiences more droughts, the amount of water available could decrease.
“Some rice farming will likely be maintained into the future. But it is hard for agriculture to compete with human water needs,” Blackburn said.