Going With the Flow
SB 3 takes steps to keep water moving across Texas
The 80th Texas Legislature has taken steps to keep Texas waters flowing to the Gulf of Mexico. Several state agencies, associations and environmental groups served as advisors.
Senate Bill 3, authored by Sen. Kip Averitt and sponsored by House Rep. Robert Puente, calls for a statewide look at Texas river basins — surface water — and the bays and estuaries that eventually receive their waters. The legislation is the next step for Texas, and backers hope it will help find a balance between human usage and the environment.
“This will help determine how much water there should be up and down a river all the way down to the coast,” Puente says. “Water is our most precious resource and we must protect it for future generations.”
Surface water belongs to the state, and aside from most livestock and domestic needs, permits are needed in order to draw it. The subject addressed by this legislation is unappropriated freshwater — water not already destined for use by a municipality or some other permitted entity — and keeping it in Texas’ rivers and streams.
One of SB 3’s major changes is in how the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) handles permit applications for surface water use.
Texas’ river and stream flows will now be considered basin by basin down to their bay and estuary systems, with recommendations to follow on their protection. This new approach makes sense for the state, says Dean Robbins, assistant general manager of the Texas Water Conservation Association (TWCA).
“It’s a much more comprehensive approach,” says Robbins. “Recommendations will now come ecosystem by ecosystem.” The plan is not only a good one, Robbins says, but a unique one he does not believe is modeled after similar studies.
Todd Chenoweth, director of TCEQ’s water supply division agrees, adding that the basin-by-basin approach will help determine current flows as well as future flows.
Divide and Study
Texas river basins will be divided into three groups of study (below) to ensure enough water is not only in Texas rivers, but also flowing into bays and estuaries.
- The Trinity and San Jacinto rivers and Galveston Bay, and the Sabine and Neches rivers and Sabine Lake Bay
- The Colorado and Lavaca rivers and Matagorda and Lavaca bays and the Guadalupe, San Antonio, Mission and Aransas rivers and Mission, Copano, Aransas and San Antonio bays
- The Nueces River and Corpus Christi and Baffi n bays, the Rio Grande, the Rio Grande estuary and the Lower Laguna Madre, and the Brazos River and its associated bay and estuary system.
“SB 3 requires the state to look comprehensively at environmental flow needs for all of the river basins,” says Chenoweth. “We’re looking to leave flow in the streams to protect species in the habitats and provide freshwater flows to the bays and estuaries. But slowly, and one basin at a time. We’re not trying to do it all at once, but we are trying to do it all.”
SB 3 requires local participation in determining the statewide assessment. The bill creates a nine-person Environmental Flows Advisory Group, with three members each appointed by the governor, the lieutenant governor and the speaker of the Texas House of Representatives.
The advisory group then must appoint local stakeholder groups within each river basin, as well as a statewide science advisory committee. The local stakeholder groups may establish local scientific teams to assist with their basins’ freshwater in-stream flow — the water in a river or stream — and inflow — the water flowing into a bay — studies. Scientists will help make recommendations to TCEQ on how to best protect Texas’ fish, oysters, shrimp and other bay and estuary species. Shrimping alone is a $225 million industry in Texas.
Each basin’s local stakeholder group will recommend environmental water needs to TCEQ, which will take these into account when considering future water-use permits.
The first local stakeholders group will appoint its local science team by March 1, 2008. Texas’ river basins are divided into three groups for study. The first will be the river basin and bay system consisting of the Trinity and San Jacinto rivers and Galveston Bay, and the river basin and bay system consisting of the Sabine and Neches rivers and Sabine Lake Bay.
That first group is scheduled to report to TCEQ by Sept. 1, 2009, with the remaining groups expected to report in 2010 and 2011.
In the end, the environmental study work of the stakeholder groups will help TCEQ establish future permitting guidelines. That kind of attention will be invaluable to Texans as the state’s population increases and the number of rivers and streams stays the same.
“Economically, the cheapest way to make water is to hang on to what you already have,” says Bill McCann, spokesman for the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA). LCRA manages the lower basin of Texas’ Colorado River, which itself drains more than 42,000 square miles before emptying into Matagorda Bay. Matagorda Bay is in the second group slated for study.
In the end, the basin studies and their local involvement will have positive impacts across the state, Robbins says. “The truth is, this isn’t just about the bays, it’s about the streams and the rivers, too,” he says. FN