A Decade of Water
The state of Texas water is complicated, with challenges around every bend.
By Carter P. Smith
The Springs of Texas. Water in Texas. The Time it Never Rained. Goodbye to a River. Paddling the Wild Neches. Texas Rivers. The Water Hustlers. The Book of Texas Bays. Fishing Yesterday's Gulf Coast.
My bookshelf is chock-full of writings relating to Texas water — shallow and deep, salty and fresh, inshore and offshore, surface and ground, flowing and dammed, droughts and downpours. As a collector of such things, I suspect I am not alone.
In a state where most of us are seemingly always one day closer to the next drought, water and weather are top of mind for Texans.
Protecting the source of our drinking water and investing in the quality of water in rivers, streams, creeks, aquifers, estuaries and reservoirs are values that Texans identify as major statewide priorities. These sentiments are shared by all sectors of the Texas populace, irrespective of social, political, economic or geographic considerations.
A number of years ago, I was involved in a San Antonio ballot initiative for a one-eighth-cent sales tax to support purchasing land and conservation easements over critical recharge zones above the Edwards Aquifer. This would help protect water quality in the aquifer, the city's sole source of drinking water. In doing so, other valued conservation goals would be accomplished, such as protecting open space, wildlife habitat and Hill Country farmland and ranchland.
But it was the fate of the water that clearly sealed the deal. As I stood in front of polling places, voters almost invariably had the same response: "Oh, you are working on the water proposition. Of course, I'll vote for that. We have to protect our water." It was that straightforward.
The state of water is and has been the defining natural resource issue for this state, and will be for centuries to come. There's an old saying: "Agua es vida." Water is life. No words could be truer when contemplating the health and vitality of our present and future economies, our environment, our human and natural communities and our quality of life.
For the past 10 years, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has proudly heralded the value of our water resources in this magazine's annual State of Water series, published each July. These features — written by authors who know their way around a raindrop, a watershed, an aquifer, a meandering river, a seagrass nursery and an ocean floor — have highlighted the state's diverse array of aquatic resources, from the aquifers to the bays and from the springs to the Gulf. Their thoughtful prose has captured the beauty, richness, variability, fragility and utility of our water bodies, as well as the contention that surrounds this precious resource. These writers have tackled the hard questions confronted by policy-makers grappling with how to meet the state's competing water demands for a growing population and a healthy environment.
Where will the water come from? Who is going to get it? How much will they get? These questions have been part and parcel of every serious writing and deliberation on the state of Texas water, including those pieces featured in Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine. Not surprisingly, we've championed the needs of fish and wildlife and advocated that their interests be appropriately represented in the state's various water planning processes and public discussions. We've done so with good reason.
Texas is one of the most biologically diverse places in the Western Hemisphere. We harbor more birds and reptiles than any other state, and we enjoy comparatively high levels of species richness and rates of endemic species. That diversity is made possible by well-stewarded watersheds, robust aquifers, flowing springs, clean rivers, healthy bays and estuaries and Gulf waters.
Those aquatic habitats not only serve the vital needs of our diverse plant and animal communities, but they are essential in meeting the growing and evolving outdoor recreational demands of our population. Fish- and wildlife-associated recreation is big business in Texas. The most recent studies from Southwick Associates found that hunting, fishing and other forms of nature-related activities contribute $16 billion a year to our state's economy.
Water sports such as kayaking and canoeing are some of the fastest-growing leisure activities in the country. Communities big and small, from Houston and Arlington to Luling and Lufkin, have embraced their bayous, lakes and rivers as important natural economic generators, designating and promoting paddling trails for residents and tourists alike.
So as we roll out this 10th edition of the State of Water, let's examine where we stand on water-related issues that affect our state's exceptional natural heritage.
In 2002's water issue, Larry McKinney laid the groundwork for subsequent discourse with "Water for the Future," his reflective piece on balancing water needs for humans and the environment. He eloquently articulated the critical basis for maintaining sufficient "environmental flows" in our rivers and ultimately into our bays and estuaries, where they provide life-giving nutrients, sediment and pulses of freshwater for the shrimp, crab, redfish, trout, flounder and other bay-based fish and wildlife that depend upon them.
Other pieces covered the waterfront, both literally and figuratively. Jan Reid wrote about the future of our remaining big springs such as Comal Springs in the Hill Country, and Elmer Kelton penned his thoughts about the fate of the mighty Ogallala, the mother of all groundwater resources in the Texas Panhandle. Jim Anderson described the biological richness of our estuaries, such as Matagorda Bay, and Joe Nick Patoski took us down the undammed and unforgiving Devils River, perhaps the wildest Texas river. My predecessor, Bob Cook, effectively characterized the importance of good land stewardship and the crucial role private landowners play in protecting our surface and groundwater.
Not surprisingly, these conservation issues remain relevant today. McKinney projected that our state's population would double by 2050, increasing the need to emphasize water conservation as a measure that each of us can positively affect with individual choices.
The future of our aquatic resources is being contemplated and debated by our citizens and state leaders in forums across the state. Extensive science and stakeholder processes (mandated by the passage of Senate Bill 3 in 2007) are under way to identify appropriate environmental flows in each of the state's major river basins. Deliberations about high and low river flows, the needs of fisheries dependent upon those flows, and the degree and timing of freshwater pulses into our bays are all part of the state-directed, bottom-up efforts originally envisioned in SB3.
The process, a necessarily messy one by design and democracy, has had its challenges. The debate among stakeholders in some basins about environmental flows has been, to borrow a phrase from Robert Penn Warren, "not exactly like Easter week in a nunnery." In others, the deliberations are proceeding amicably. Ultimately, however, it will be up to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to delineate and defend the specific set of flow conditions required to maintain sound ecological environments in our rivers.
In South and Central Texas, representatives from regional river and water authorities, agricultural interests and conservation agencies have spent the last several years working earnestly on the Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Program. The voluntary, stakeholder-based process is designed to help protect the vitality of the region's life-giving spring flows and the conservation needs of imperiled species.
The city of San Antonio and its partners have been busy on another aquifer-related project that protects more than 90,000 acres of critical Edwards Aquifer recharge land. The relatively inexpensive process of acquiring voluntary conservation easements from willing private landowner partners made this possible.
Thanks to more than $10 million in private donations, TPWD recently acquired 19,000 acres along the Devils River — including 10 miles of pristine river frontage — to add to its existing state natural area complex. Many public paddling trails have opened, including seven in May in the Dallas–Fort Worth area. These and other investments ensure that we have special places on and around our waters to use and enjoy for generations to come.
Conversely, other new and imposing challenges have also descended upon us. The Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 was the largest oil spill in the Gulf's history. Thankfully, the Texas coast was not as obviously and immediately affected as other Gulf coastlines. Nonetheless, many species that spend part of their lives in our waters were affected directly and indirectly — such as juvenile sport fish and Kemp's ridley sea turtles — so we share a large stake in the Gulf's ultimate restoration and recovery.
Moving inland, our lakes continue to suffer from a proliferation of exotic and invasive plants that clog the water's surface. Noxious species such as giant salvinia and water hyacinth threaten large freshwater bodies such as Toledo Bend, Caddo Lake and Lake Conroe. Their rampant expansion threatens our native aquatic species, interferes with boating, fishing and other recreational access, affects property values and compromises the integrity of our aquatic habitats.
A new and invasive interloper, the zebra mussel, has made its way into Lake Texoma on the Texas/Oklahoma border. This exotic mussel, which originally hails from western Russia, reproduces most prodigiously and affixes itself to any available hard substrate, whether boats, trailers, pipes or pilings. Zebra mussels pose serious challenges for area water managers. Efforts to arrest their spread may affect portions of the water supply system for more than 4 million people in North Texas alone.
The state of water is a complicated one, replete with challenges around every bend. Add in plans for new surface reservoirs, legal challenges about groundwater ownership, proposed federal endangered species listings of certain native freshwater mussel species and the effects from the recent drought, and discussions about water are anything but dull.
As we look ahead, we should remember that water resources are precious and precarious, and most assuredly finite. Conservation is neither a luxury nor a privilege, but rather a promise that we cannot afford to ignore. We all play roles, big and small, in this undertaking. Ultimately, our actions will forever define us as stewards of the springs, creeks, rivers, lakes, bays and Gulf waters that sustain us all.