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Water for the Future

Perhaps no other natural resource in Texas has evoked more emotional debate, nor has been more coveted or fought over throughout Texas history.

By Larry McKinney

Water. Oil pales beside it, and the value of the land itself is measured by it. Texas differs little from many western lakes in this regard. Water not only has been the definer of our natural setting but the great limiter of growth and development.

Texas. It is a state dominated by a system of rivers and streams that empty into a series of coastal estuaries. The Texas landscape has been continually sculpted by its 15 major river systems and more than 11,247 named streams and tributaries that course along 80,000 miles of streambed. Excepting the Canadian, Red and Rio Grande, the headwaters and major drainages of these rivers are almost entirely within the state. All but four rivers - the Canadian, Red, Sulfur and Cypress - eventually drain into one of the seven major estuaries, or several associated minor ones, that line the margin of Texas' 400 miles of coastline.

Until you see a map on which vegetation, cities and roads have been stripped away, leaving only the remaining natural topography, you cannot fully appreciate how much water dominates the state. It is the great integrator, linking and melding our 11 distinctive ecological regions. Such a map is even more impressive when you include the vast quantities of water hidden beneath the ground in a system of intermeshed aquifers. The influence of the state's nine major and 16 minor aquifers has been subtle and often unrecognized, except for the unique and spectacular expression of the Edwards Aquifer as seen at Comal and San Marcos Springs.

Ever since the first settler forded a river and stepped onto Texas soil, water has been the magic fluid shaping the state's development. Rivers and bays were the first Texas highways; every great city in the state grew where it did because of water. Water nurtured wildlife and the land.

Today, our ability to alter this network of water has grown so tremendously as to boggle the mind. The management and diversion of entire river systems is not only contemplated but is being accomplished. More than 200 major dams have been constructed in Texas to provide flood control and municipal water supplies. Our discharges into rivers often exceed natural flows, and seasonal patterns of flow and flood have in some cases been reversed to meet our needs.

What we now think of as "natural" in some cases is far from it. In 1913 there were only eight reservoirs in Texas. Today we have more square miles of inland water than any other state except Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes. If new reservoirs now in the planning stage are built, we will pass Minnesota at a dead run within the next 20 years.

Yet today, Texas faces the possibility that rivers could be de-watered and its vibrant coastal ecosystem irreparably harmed. Almost 900 Texas cities will not have enough water from current sources to meet their needs in 2050. Texas is a growing state, with the population expected to double - from 20 million to 40 million - by 2050. According to the newly adopted state water plan, Water for Texas 2002, Texas currently has an unmet need of 2.4 million acre-feet of water annually. By 2050 unmet needs are projected to triple, to 7.5 million acre-feet. During a 2050 drought, almost half the water needed by Texas cities will not be available unless supplies are increased or demand is decreased.

Wildlife Needs Water, Too

While water is essential for human health, economic growth and quality of life, it is also essential for flora, fauna and fish. Texas has streams and rivers that are the key element in maintaining much of our state's natural heritage. Those ecosystems provide the water that flows into 212 major reservoirs and eventually into seven major estuaries along the Texas Coast, supporting the best inland and coastal fisheries in the United States. Healthy aquatic communities in Texas rivers, reservoirs and estuaries provide water not only for drinking, industry and agriculture, but also direct recreational benefits.

Wetland habitats support migrating birds and provide a valuable link with other ecosystems. The wetlands and the vegetated (riparian) corridors associated with streams and rivers and the marshes and seagrass beds of coastal estuaries are an integral part of aquatic ecosystems that play a key role in protecting water quality, preventing erosion and providing nutrients for fish and wildlife.

Groundwater also is important to wildlife. Springs fed from aquifers support a rich diversity of endemic aquatic species and through springflow contribute to rivers and streams. In many areas of the state, particularly West Texas, these springs and streams depend on good range management to generate and sustain surface water. All these forms of groundwater and its manifestations are critical to wildlife.

The process that fuels both groundwater and the river systems, precipitation, is in turn a product of the prevailing climatic conditions as expressed in weather. In Texas this means variable, and there is real truth to the old-timers' saying about Texas weather: "If you don't like the weather, just wait a minute and it will change." Nonetheless, there are some definite trends in temperature and rainfall that are reflected in the regional character of Texas rivers.

Our state's variable weather helps create a variety of habitats for wildlife in Texas rivers. In East Texas, for example, rivers have year-round constant flows and more predictable seasonal floods. In the south and west, less frequent rainfall means intermittent rivers and floods that are typically violent and difficult to anticipate. The diversity of aquatic systems we see today reflects this gradient. In combination with a variety of landforms - from silty clays and sands to limestone and granite - these aquatic systems provide our state with some of its most valuable and interesting natural heritage and the basis for Texas' unparalleled biological diversity.

Planning for a Population Boom

With Texas' population doubling to almost 40 million in the next 50 years, existing water supplies cannot sustain that growth unless action is taken to better conserve our supplies and supplement them where necessary to meet need.

According to the newly adopted state water plan, the individual regional water plans that comprise it call for eight new major reservoirs to be added to Texas' existing 214 major reservoirs during the next 50 years. These new reservoirs would increase surface water availability by 1.2 million acre-feet per year. That is dependable yield (water calculated to be available during the worst recorded drought period), not storage capacity, which in most cases would be considerably greater than firm yield capacity. Our best estimate is a total storage capacity of 3 million acre-feet in those reservoirs.

If we cannot meet that future demand with surface water, some or all of it will come from groundwater. Yet we are mining groundwater at an unsustainable rate. Texas already gets 57 percent of its water from groundwater - and we have paid a price for our heavy use of this resource. Of the 281 major and historical springs that once flowed in Texas, some 63 had dried up by 1973 - a number that by one estimate has doubled since then. None of those springs ceased from natural causes.

Solving the Water Equation

The newly adopted state water plan summarizes 16 regional plans that advance a series of water management strategies to assure that we meet water needs for the foreseeable future. The current plan defines these needs in terms of municipal, industrial and agricultural demands upon existing and future water supplies. Environmental water - instream flows for rivers and freshwater inflows to coastal estuaries necessary to maintain their health and productivity - is not identified as a separate need.

In most cases, water rights issued before 1985 for the development of water-supply projects had no environmental requirements. The needs of wildlife and provisions for instream flows to maintain the health of aquatic habitats were not considered, or were considered only on a piecemeal basis as part of the water-permitting process. Despite the importance of water to quality of life in Texas, when it came time to divide up the limited supply, wildlife and the environment were not part of the equation.

Before the 1980s, we could afford to ignore environmental water needs in solving that equation. Like many natural resources in Texas, water was generally seen as abundant - where it occurred. Our primary limits were that we physically could not access it or move it very efficiently to where it was not abundant (West Texas). From the 1980s until now, we have been able to address environmental water needs as part of individual permits. All permits since the mid-'80s have included an environmental assessment, and many include conditions to protect instream flows and freshwater inflows.

But now, as we look to the future, it is clear that such an approach will not be sufficient to conserve our natural heritage. Increasingly, we will have to manage and develop water on a regional scale, and regional solutions will be required to meet environmental water needs. If we are successful in finding such solutions, the adverse impact of individual projects will be greatly diminished or even eliminated. Balancing the water equation in this manner must be our goal to assure a prosperous and healthy Texas.

Tools to Increase Supply

To make the best use of available water, tools such as reservoirs, interbasin transfers of water and reuse (see sidebar) are strategies that will come more and more into play as the state water plan advances to meet its goals. These tools - despised by the environmental extreme and seen as salvation by water hustlers - must be seen as tools of opportunity. That's because, if we wish to save some water for wildlife while providing water for 20 million more Texans, these tools are an inevitable necessity to meet the needs of the latter.

Building a reservoir to catch and hold water is the best understood of these strategies. Eight new major and 10 minor reservoirs are contemplated in the state plan at a cost of $3.05 billion. The creation of reservoirs has advantages, although many would note they do not counter the disadvantages. Lakes not only supply water, they also provide tremendous recreational potential. They attract freshwater anglers who annually generate $6.4 billion in economic benefits; some of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's most popular state parks line the shores of lakes.

But the resource costs downstream can be high. When rivers are dammed, habitat is not only drowned at the site, but hydrology and ecology of rivers and hardwood bottomlands downstream can suffer. Reservoirs may capture, in whole or part, floods that are critical to these ecosystems and to the coastal estuaries into which they empty. Some 90 percent of all commercially and recreationally important shellfish and finfish - which annually generate $2.6 billion in economic benefits - depend upon freshwater inflows.

Some adverse impacts of reservoir creation can be mitigated, or compensated for by acquiring and managing other similar lands. Seasonally adjusted water releases may help as well. The problem is that the "easy" projects are already done. Some of those now contemplated, like Marvin Nichols in East Texas, are to be sited in the most ecologically valuable bottomlands remaining in the state.

Another tool is the interbasin transfer - the movement of water from a watershed that has water to one that doesn't. We have seen many such transfers in the past, but interbasin transfers currently proposed - like the piping of water from the Colorado and Guadalupe rivers to supply the city of San Antonio - are on an unprecedented scale. If water remains in a basin, its ecological contributions to the health of that system basically remain. Not so if the water is moved to flow down a different stream and into a different estuary. Potential ecological problems are obvious. On the other hand, interbasin transfers have potential benefits and may represent the best means to regional solutions. Moving water from far East Texas to Houston, for example, could also benefit the Sabine and Galveston bay estuarine systems - restoring historic seasonal patterns to the former and replacing diverted fresh water to the latter. Similar opportunities exist in Central and South Texas.

Water for Wildlife is Still Lacking

Ironically, the full burden of environmental protection may fall on the last applicants for water - wildlife and the environment. Senate Bill 1, passed in 1997, mandated that environmental impacts be considered in the water planning process. For the first time, wildlife and the environment were given a place at the table. However, as noted above, the vast majority of Texas water rights were appropriated before this law was passed. Therefore, many river systems and estuaries may not be managed to the good of the ecosystem. The deck is stacked in favor of cities, industry and agriculture.

The current water plan does not identify environmental water needs as a separate demand. While it defines municipal, industrial and agricultural demands for the future, the needs of instream flows for rivers and freshwater inflows to coastal estuaries are largely ignored. As we look to the future, it is clear that this approach will not be sufficient to conserve the natural heritage of Texas.

This is the key problem we face now in Texas. It is one that our political leadership will struggle to solve in the face of a state growing so fast and changing so quickly as to defy easy comprehension.

Now Is the Time

class="notoppad"The important message is that it is not too late. We have time to plan for the future, but we must do so now or lose the opportunity, perhaps forever. No one denies that water for people is important. Yet if we wish to continue enjoying the fish, wildlife and recreational resources of Texas and, more important, if we want our children to enjoy them, we have a stake in making sure that water for wildlife is a part of the water equation in Texas.

Senate Bill 1 set out the procedure to be followed in planning for Texas' future water needs. Sixteen regional planning groups were formed to solicit and act on public input, leading to the development of 16 regional water plans that now form the basis of the state water plan. Some 450 representatives in these regional planning groups held nearly 900 public meetings across the state over a three-year period. Work has already begun on revising these documents for the 2007 state water plan.

Over the next 10 years, the first decade of the new millennium, we will make the choices that define the future for the natural heritage of Texas. That is a bold statement perhaps, but not an overstatement. One major river, the Rio Grande, which defines our southern border, stopped short of reaching the sea early last year.

Overall, the fish and wildlife of Texas, our rivers, lakes and estuaries, remain healthy and productive, but the warning signs, such as the Rio Grande, are flashing. Now is the time to plan how to conserve, safeguard and wisely manage our water resources in ways that will protect human health, allow for economic growth and enhance quality of life. The current choices we face about water planning provide an opportunity to look around and see what our heritage means to us - and what it will mean to our children.

Healthy Water Ecosystems Are Vital to the Economy

  • About 30,000 commercial fishers catch 100 million pounds of coastal fish and shellfish worth $200 million each year.
  • When considered altogether, Texas estuaries provide a non-polluting, self-sustaining industry worth $2.5 billion to Texas each year.
  • Canoeing and kayaking rivers would be impossible without flowing water.
  • Texans spend more than $3 billion annually on trips to fish, swim, boat and water ski.
  • Texas is the number-two sport-fishing state in the nation. Freshwater anglers alone spend $1.9 billion annually in the state.
  • Agriculture contributes $45 billion annually to the Texas economy. Irrigated crops include cotton, wheat, corn, sorghum grain, fruit, hay and rice.
  • Texas is the largest livestock producer in the nation. Water use by the livestock industry accounts for about two percent of water use in the state.
  • Texas rivers and estuaries assimilate huge volumes of wastewater discharges and other pollution, protecting water quality for all of us.

Water Reuse

The good news about water reuse is that someday we will all be drinking treated wastewater, the joke goes. The bad news? There won't be enough to go around.

Reuse may be the least familiar of all these strategies and, until understood, the most disgusting to the uninitiated. It is basically "reusing" treated wastewater for other purposes. We mostly think of gray water, like running the washing machine water on the lawn or, on a municipal scale, a golf course. We do not do a lot of this in Texas (about 10 percent of all wastewater is reused) but other countries like Israel use as much as 60 percent. It just depends on your definition. Anyone on the Trinity River downstream of Dallas likely enjoys the benefits of reuse water and, whether they know it not, depend upon it. Fortunately for them, Dallas takes their water quality responsibilities seriously.

Reuse, as with the other strategies, may have both positive and negative impacts on wildlife. It is sensible to make the best use of water you already have. It means less water taken from rivers and groundwater. In Texas we have seldom been that efficient, except in San Antonio, El Paso and Corpus Christi, where they know the value of water. Most water used in cities is merely borrowed to wash clothes, flush toilets, etc. Only 10 percent or so is consumed. The rest goes through the wastewater treatment plant and back (return flow) into the river where it provides important instream flows and thence on to users downstream. We have come to count on that ecologically and economically. In some basins we have come to depend on return flows for both needs. As we become more efficient in reuse, those return flows will diminish and perhaps their associated ecosystems as well.

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