Texas: The State of Rivers
A network of waterways defines and binds together our diverse landscape.
By Larry McKinney
My appreciation for, and love of, Texas rivers did not come naturally. It was an acquired taste that was realized only after many years. I was born and raised in West Texas near the small farming community of Coahoma. No rivers there. We had “draws” in which I spent my time playing and exploring — natural playgrounds that no city park could equal. On the very rare occasion of a rain, during which we often received our entire annual rainfall in an hour or so, those pastoral draws became raging torrents. I remember them vividly. Cows, barns, entire trees and rafts of trees would tumble by in a boiling red-brown flood with all the intensity and sound of a runaway freight train. It was frightening and yet fascinating.
Even today, as I stand on the bank of any river, that powerful childhood memory continues to tickle at the back of my mind. There are not many Texas rivers I have not waded, canoed or fallen into since Coahoma, but that background level of unease lingers. I do not pay it much more attention than that, as it is but a small unease in a bigger, more powerful and reaffirming magic that I always feel on the margins of rivers such as the Devil’s in West Texas, the Llano in Central Texas and the Neches in East Texas. I use the term “magic” with forethought, because I cannot honestly come up with a more descriptive word for how rivers affect me. I can understand them intellectually as complex, living entities — an easy concept for me to grasp because of my scientific training and study of them. But they are more than that, something in which scientific training begins to fail me — adding another small increment of unease. To this day, I cannot get on a river in my canoe or kayak without that barely perceptible feeling of unease rising to the surface. I guess it is because you have to give up some level of control to the river as it embraces you and your vessel — you join with it, not it with you.
That mass of water moving almost soundlessly past me generates a palpable sense of raw physical power. It is a presence that I can feel without actually touching the surface. Where does this water come from? Where is it going? What is hiding in the roiling depths beneath an otherwise calm surface? Answers to those questions are two-edged — metaphysical and physical. The metaphysical answer rests on individual experience and psyche, difficult to express or generalize but gut-level essential. The physical is more tangible and as important. Our health and economic well-being as individuals and communities depends upon the answers.
Except for the 15 major rivers and their larger tributaries, like the Guadalupe and its tributary the San Marcos, most of us are not aware of the extent to which these waterways encompass and define Texas. Using modern Geographic Information System technology, one can strip away map layers of roads, vegetation types and other natural and manmade features to reveal almost 200,000 miles of streams and rivers. It is a startling revelation to the uninitiated, and the universal response is that it looks like one of those human models in which the skin has been peeled away to show the circulatory system. It is an appropriate metaphor; both systems are vital to the health of the body they serve.
Texas is remarkable in biological diversity. It has 11 recognized and distinct biological provinces, defined by characteristic soils, vegetation and animal life. It is the network of rivers and streams that bind this diverse landscape together and integrate them one with the other. Our rivers and streams are a movable feast, carrying nutrients to one area and removing waste from another. They and their wooded margins are highways for the migration and dispersal of wildlife. Often these wooded or riparian strips are the only wildlife habitat in otherwise developed lands cleared for agriculture, housing or industry.
The natural cycles of flood and drought are expressed as rivers expand explosively or shrink to a trickle, dictating the health of the lands in which they are embedded.
This dominance of rivers was not lost on the people originally inhabiting Texas, nor on those who later laid claim to it. Major Native American camps and the archeological sites that mark them today are invariably near a river, stream or important water feature. The margins of the San Marcos River have been continually occupied for 12,000 years. The springs and rivers of West Texas are littered with the artifacts of the past. These waterways were the highways that sped travel, promoted trade and sustained community. When Europeans came on the scene it was no different. Every major city in Texas is on a river or at the confluence of rivers. Texas rivers such as the Rio Grande, Pecos, Red, Colorado and San Jacinto reverberate with our history, for much of it was played out on their banks.
Texas rivers are as diverse as the history they reflect. In pre-European Texas, rivers flowed unimpeded except by natural obstructions such as log jams and the like. Those seldom lasted for long, and the next sufficiently large flood often eliminated them. Lakes of any significant size were not a part of Texas historic natural setting, unless one looks back some 100 million years to the period of the great inland seas.
The Texas climate, along with its soil type, is what dictates riverine diversity. The high rainfalls of the northeast Pineywoods diminish in an orderly gradient, moving south and west, dwindling to nearly nothing in the Trans-Pecos. East Texas rivers, such as the Neches and Sabine are big and steady, what easterners recognize as rivers in the classic sense. Their margins were once lined with immense hardwood bottomland forests. More than 60 percent of these forests have been lost, and more is threatened as areas like the Big Thicket stand lonely sentinel to what once was and may never be again.
The Trinity marks the transition from forest to the rivers of the plains — the Brazos and Colorado, big, muddy and powerful. They drain much of the rolling plains and Llano Estacado in the Panhandle of Texas, bulking up with huge sediment loads as they charge towards the coast. The Brazos is so sediment-laden that it has filled its historic bay and empties directly into the Gulf of Mexico. The biggest cities of Texas were built with the sand and gravel of these rivers cast into concrete and mortar.
The Hill Country rivers of Central Texas are hidden gems that few outside of Texas (thank goodness) know: the Sabinal, Medina, Nueces, Frio, Llano and others like them run clear and cool through rocks and “blue holes” and grottos in a thousand hidden spots. Some, such as the Comal and San Marcos, are fed by springs from the Edwards Aquifer — the sole water source for San Antonio. These tributaries eventually feed the Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers and run to the coast and the estuaries that depend upon them for life-giving water.
It is hard to do justice to these remarkable resources. The best job has been done by John Graves, in his seminal work, Goodbye to a River, and in Texas Rivers with photographs by Wyman Meinzer. Verne Huser in Rivers of Texas has profiled all the major rivers of Texas. These books are must-reads for all Texans concerned of their fate.
The fate of Texas rivers hangs in the balance, and, unless we come quickly to appreciate their value, we risk their loss. The problem is that most Texans have little understanding of what is at stake, what that loss can mean. On one river trip, I came upon several young men tossing full trash bags into the river from the back of their pickup truck. I was so stunned I could not think what to do, so I asked them as calmly as possible what they were doing.
They responded in true innocence that they were getting rid of trash. I replied that this was no way to treat a river. Their parting rejoinder was puzzlement. “What’s the big deal?” they said. The river always takes care of it. When they come back, the trash is gone!
I hope this is a worst-case example of a general malady, but it is instructive nonetheless.
There is an old truism: We all live downstream from someone. Many Texas cities, large and small, draw drinking water from rivers upstream of them. The water passes through showers, dishwashers and, yes, toilets, on through treatment plants that partially clean it up, and it goes back into the river, along with industrial discharges, urban and agricultural runoff. Downstream, that water is drawn into another city and the cycle repeats itself.
What allows this process to work is the healthy aquatic ecosystems of these rivers. With adequate water and abundant plants and trees and broad flood plains, rivers dilute the discharges and filter the water through plants and soil. Functioning ecosystems can cleanse the water as it passes downstream. The stretches of unaltered rivers between discharge and intake pipes process and assimilate these byproducts of civilization. So long as they remain healthy, they are a natural and cost-effective treatment. The key to that health is sufficient instream flows to support the aquatic communities. We simply cannot continue to remove water from rivers and expect them to continue to function.
It seems elementary, but rivers need water to exist. The consequences of not enough water are more than ecological collapse; they can be life-threatening. Examples abound around the world where epidemics are fostered by poor water quality and pollution caused by human actions that reduce river flow.
There are rivers in Texas where we are close to this scenario, like the Rio Grande. Much has been written about it. It is drying up from both ends. One can no longer count on canoeing the canyons of the Big Bend; one hikes them — there is often not enough water to maintain anything other than intermittent pools. The mouth of the river periodically ceases to reach the sandy beach of Boca Chica to the sea. Drought, invasive aquatic plants and too great a demand for water are exhAusting this river.
We have dammed every major river system in Texas and in many, drastically altered their natural cycles. We have diverted water from them and the estuaries they feed to support the economic development of the state and help diminish the threat of drought. All of this has been to the benefit of us all, but it has come at a price. It is a price that our rivers have been able to bear up to this point, but clearly, as the Rio Grande situation illustrates, we sit on the razor’s edge. The golden alga blooms of the Colorado and especially the Brazos may be sending us a signal of possible trouble. In 2001 and 2002, the golden alga caused several major fish kills in these river basins, killing approximately 4.5 million fish in the Brazos River system and 2.3 million fish in the Colorado River system. Estimated losses to local economies from the 2001 winter fish kills exceeded $18 million. Aside from toxic algae, the most common causes or stressors that affect assessed streams and rivers in Texas are high bacteria levels, elevated average concentrations of dissolved minerals and depressed dissolved oxygen concentrations. While some of the stream and river water quality problems are naturally occurring, others are preventable. We cannot continue to take these valuable resources for granted, and we cannot sustain further abuse of them if we are to accommodate the additional 20 million Texans we anticipate during the next 50 years.
Like their calm surfaces that hide a roiling current, Texas rivers may be nearer to manifesting problems than we can see from looking at them. In some rivers, so much water has been permitted for withdrawal that if all of it were removed, the health of the waterways would be in peril. Fortunately, not all permitted water is used, and some water that is used returns to the river only somewhat abused. As the demands for water grow and its value increases, as our ability to move water between basins and markets develops, the holders of these permits will have great incentive to fully use “their” water. What then is the fate of the rivers on the margin? That is a question we must answer now, when options are still available. Sooner than we think, there will be none.
The good news for Texas is that options do exist right now. Also we know that we can be successful on a meaningful scale, if we make the commitment now. What we have done to address water quality concerns demonstrates what we can do on a statewide scale. We are not yet where we need to be. While approximately 80 percent of the assessed rivers and streams in Texas in 2002 fully supported their designated uses, some form of pollution impaired the remaining 20 percent. Contact recreation is the use most frequently affected. However, the Trinity River below Dallas is no longer referred to as the “Black River of Death” because of overwhelming quantities of untreated sewage. The Houston Ship Channel, once one of the worst polluted reaches in America, no longer catches fire — when a fish kill occurs there now, it’s news. We can reverse wastewater and industrial pollution problems, and we have done so.
All that progress could be lost if we do not make sure enough water remains in our rivers to maintain healthy aquatic communities. If we wish to continue to fish, swim and boat in our rivers, even live next to them safely, we must reserve enough water to assure their health. The means to do so are numerous; we must find the political will to employ them.
That process has started, and the Texas Legislature has put a framework into place to figure out what will work best for Texas. It will not be easy. A limited quantity of water is available for cities, industry, agriculture and the environment. We must have water for all these needs to secure the future we all want for Texas. We all have a stake in it and a contribution to make, whether it is participating in this important process or conserving our most precious natural resource: water. The choice is ours.