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A Natural River

The upper reaches of the Brazos River are feeling the pressure of change.

By John H. Ostdick<

The enormous Brazos River system stretches 840 miles long from its trace beginnings in northeastern New Mexico to its sediment-gorged mouth at the Gulf of Mexico, 2 miles south of Freeport. Like many of Texas’ major rivers, the Brazos barely resembles its frontier origins. Dams on its main stream and tributaries repeatedly stop its flow,

creating reservoirs that provide water and recreation near Fort Worth and Dallas: Possum Kingdom, Whitney, Granbury, Hubbard Creek, Palo Pinto and Waco. In 1957, the building of the De Cordova Bend Dam on the Brazos spawned one of the great books on the environment, Goodbye to a River by John Graves. For 3 weeks, Graves paddled a stretch of the Brazos that would disappear into a reservoir and contemplated the price of that development, mourning the gradual loss of a natural world.

Most of the Brazos is forever changed by that series of dams, but in the parched High Plains and shortgrass prairies of Northwest Texas, one last long piece of the natural river has survived, two spindly little forks that begin the river: the Double Mountain Fork and the Salt Fork. For almost 150 miles, they snake though the multi-colored cliffs of the escarpment, past red-dirt farms and mesquite-infested ranches, through sand channels and rocky chutes, past wide vistas. In this arid, flat, scantily populated country, every drop of water matters, even the naturally salty water of the Salt Fork.

Generally ignored in the state’s great dam rush of the closing half of the last century, the forks remained mostly impervious to modern water demands. But that is slowly changing, and biologists worry about what that portends for their future.

The Damming Effect

If you read much about rivers, you find that most of the experts believe the days of dam building are over, but in dry country, thoughts of a dam are seldom far away. The uppermost dam on the Brazos River is the John T. Montford, which creates Lake Alan Henry, in Garza County about 65 miles from Lubbock. It is also the Brazos system’s newest dam, completed in 1993. Standing on top of it, you can look down at the reddish brown trickle that is the Double Mountain Fork leaving the reservoir, and while it might not look like much, it is liquid gold. How to mine that liquid gold without drastically changing the region’s aquatics is one of the biggest challenges here.

Even a reservoir won’t help if it doesn’t rain, and in the best of years it doesn’t rain that much in the Upper Brazos. After last year’s second-lowest level of rainfall on record, Lubbock mayor Marc McDougal issued a formal proclamation calling residents to pray and fast for rain to replenish local reservoirs. One day, a yet-to-be-built pipeline will annually pump about 23 million gallons of Alan Henry water uphill to Lubbock.

Runoff in a 400-square-mile watershed feeds Alan Henry. When full, the lake’s 3,600-foot-long dam confines about 40 billion gallons of water within its rock-edged shorelines. More than 41,000 visitors passed through its recreation permit office in 2003. Largemouth bass, stocked after the reservoir filled, prove the most popular catch in the reservoir. The recreational revenue (in addition to flood control and water storage) of reservoirs lures rural development boards into dreaming of dams, even though the logistics are daunting.

Research shows that dam construction affects downstream fisheries by altering temperature regimes, flow rates, substrate, water quality and nutrient availability. Dams can have upstream effects as well.

“Looking down the river valley from the Alan Henry dam, there isn’t any river there,” notes Gene Wilde, a Texas Tech University associate professor of fisheries science. “It’s a powerful statement on the impoundment’s effects on the aquatic resources of the river basin.” In 1995, Wilde started extensive sampling about 5 to 8 miles above the new reservoir and continued for several years.

Wilde expected sharpnose and smalleye shiners, two species of minnows found exclusively in the Brazos, to die off because of the reservoir; his sampling quickly bore that out. “A thriving species became almost non-existent,” Wilde notes. “You have all this water just a short distance downstream, and it means nothing to these stream fish.”

The White River Municipal Water District has a long-held state reservoir permit on the North Fork of the Double Mountain Fork in Garza County but has yet to apply for the necessary federal permits. Its existing state permit expires in 2008. Such an impoundment would capture runoff that would otherwise feed the forks.

A Salty Problem

Both of the upper forks of the Brazos, particularly the Salt, absorb large amounts of its namesake from the saline soils, salty springs and oilfield residues in the Rolling Plains. On the snaking Salt, east of the town of Post, gusts of wind lift the bracing smell of salt off the river’s surface. Saline residue clings to the jagged riverbank.

State and federal agencies have long studied the natural salt sources here. Ralph Wurbs, a Texas A&M professor who developed a water rights analysis package being used in all 23 Texas river basins, considers it a major concern.

“The high salt concentrations coming down from the Salt Fork and some of the salty creeks in the watershed pose some challenges in the Possum Kingdom and Granbury reservoirs,” Wurbs explains. One plan to remedy it called for building three brine impoundments on small creeks in the primary salt source areas feeding the Salt Fork. Impetus for the project waned, however, when Congress authorized construction but required non-federal participation.

“We would dearly love to get a handle on the salt pollution problem but that’s a bigger problem than any single agency can handle,” says David Wheelock, principal engineer for the Brazos River Authority.

Even if the funding and mechanism for correcting the salt infiltration are attained, the remedy might not arrive without its perils.

“If we freshened that river up, we would see major changes in the fish community,” says Randy Moss, senior scientist at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s River Studies Program in San Marcos. Moss, who has done extensive testing on the Upper Brazos, reports water in the Salt Fork can be saltier than seawater (about 33 or 34 parts per thousand). “We’ve done sampling in late summer as high as 40 parts per thousand,” he says. “Pupfish thrive in the salty water. If for human purposes, we decided to reduce the salinity, I would expect that species to decline.”

The salt pollution that makes the river so problematic to treat for human consumption also has another unique recreational impact downstream. The heavy salt load coming into Possum Kingdom is one of the reasons it is as clear as it is and such an attraction to scuba divers.

Hope for Salvation

Several Spanish legends explain how Los Brazos de Dios, “the arms of God,” received its name; they all deal with the river providing sustenance or rescue. A coalition of a dozen communities and counties in the parched and economically strapped region around Stonewall County believe the Double Mountain Fork holds the key to their salvation as well.

The coalition has funded a campaign to build a Double Mountain Reservoir on one of two sites south of Aspermont, a weather-beaten smattering of modern brown-brick municipal buildings and closed storefronts that line State Highway 380. It has spent $120,000 for two studies, the first to determine if there is sufficient water to develop a reservoir, and the second looking at what kind of downstream impact such a project might have on Possum Kingdom, which owns the water rights involved. Further studies and analysis are pending.

“We’re looking at both the water need and a possible reservoir’s boost to recreational values and increased land values here,” says Stanley Trammell, owner of Stonewall Electric and the president of the Aspermont economic development corporation seeking reservoir approval. “We think it has the potential to be a real boon for our area. Right now, some of our involved communities, like Nolan County and Sweetwater, are really struggling for water.”

The Stonewall County effort is still in its infancy. If all goes well, a reservoir might emerge in 15 to 20 years.

Texas Tech University’s Wilde cautions that another such reservoir may irrevocably change the Brazos fish species still under siege. He says that some of the fish, including the two endemic shiners, are probably broadcast spawners; they move upstream and spawn into the current. The eggs are semi-buoyant; in the absence of current, they settle to the bottom and are lost under sediment.

“The dams will prompt more local fish populations to die,” he says. “When that happens, there will be no chance for re-establishing those species.”

History shows once species are lost to an environment, others can be affected in unpredictable ways. Balancing the importance of saving two species of shiny minnows against human-related water-quality issues is but one of the complex issues of managing rivers within the state.

Water as a Commodity

Shortly after the confluence of the two forks, the Brazos enters the state’s Cross Timbers and Prairies region. The topography becomes more rugged, and the geologic formations and soils more varied. Here, the river is at its biggest in the Upper Basin. Mesquite and salt cedar dot its banks.

Seymour, the county seat of Baylor County (population 3,929 in 2002), is an unlikely place for a grand experiment, but a location just south of town may prove just that for the Brazos River Authority and Mesa Water, a consortium of Panhandle landowners formed in 1999 by businessman Boone Pickens.

The purpose of Mesa Water is to pump groundwater from the Ogallala aquifer and sell it. Under the “rule of capture,” Texas law gives landowners the right to produce groundwater from beneath their property. Pickens and about 175 Panhandle landowners want to pump as much as 150,000 acre-feet of water per year and deliver it to any municipality willing to buy it.

In October, the river authority signed an agreement to explore the feasibility of Mesa’s delivering its water into the Brazos basin by pipeline from the Panhandle. In theory, the groundwater would be added to the Brazos River and transported downstream. Mesa would pay the river authority for the right; the authority would use that revenue to fund new projects within the basin, such as new delivery infrastructure and wastewater treatment.

The general manager of the Brazos River Authority is Phil Ford, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant general who pledged to run his agency as a business when he was hired in March 2001. With the state population expected to double by the year 2050, Ford explains that his agency is exploring ways to meet the projected water demands. “One of the things we’ve come to grips with is that we need more infrastructure to be able to move water at will, even in the Upper Basin,” he says. “If we can use the Brazos River as a transportation center to move water, then we would be smart to do so.”

Although TPWD scientist Moss understands the cost-effectiveness of using state-owned riverbed to transport water, such proposals leave him a little queasy about its impact on river’s biology, and a little skeptical in general. “Everything upstream of Possum Kingdom is characterized as pretty salty water,” he says. “It’s surprising to me that someone would think about taking fairly high-quality water out of the ground, mixing it with salty water, and transporting it downstream for consumption purposes.”

Pickens says his group is poised to install the needed infrastructure within five years. “Our water is just sitting there until somebody indicates they want it,” Pickens explains during a working weekend at his Mesa Vista Ranch in Roberts County. “We can get it to San Antonio, Dallas-Fort Worth, or wherever, quicker than anybody else can. We’ve done the studies, and the reports are on the appropriate desks statewide. We’re ready to go, if we can just get somebody to dance.”

All’s quiet so far. Demand will determine when, if and where that dance will take place. Whatever happens next, scientists such as Moss and Wilde hope that some thought will be given to preserving the natural river that still remains.

“Texas faces some real difficult decisions with respect to population growth and water distribution,” observes Wilde. “It’s also a state, as wealthy as it is, that does not give much thought to environmental issues. I’m a fish person, so obviously I have a different sensitivity to these issues than most people, but it would be just a real tragedy not to make the necessary accommodations to the biology. I don’t think we have to have one or the other.”

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