Balance needed in water flow protections

May 2, 2012 at 12:02 a.m.

W.E. "Bill" West Jr.

W.E. "Bill" West Jr.

The environmental flows (or "e-flows") process set up as part of Senate Bill 3 to determine stream flow to Texas' bays and estuaries has a set of stakeholders for each regional planning area. The planning group in which the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority (GBRA) falls is comprised of 25 stakeholders. These stakeholders, with the exception of GBRA, the City of Victoria and the City of New Braunfels, submitted e-flow recommendations to the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality (TCEQ) that failed to meet the SB-3 requirement of balance "in conjunction with other factors, including the present and future needs for water for other uses related to water supply planning."

Nevertheless, TCEQ published Proposed Revisions to the 30 TAC Chapter 298, Environmental Flow Standards for Surface Water that more closely meet the balanced approach required by SB-3.

Since then, those stakeholders have launched a media/editorial campaign aimed at getting TCEQ to change its rules to favor their e-flow recommendations, even though the legislation clearly indicates the TCEQ "shall consider" the stakeholder recommendations and other factors - not that those recommendations take precedent over TCEQ.

The stakeholders who want less water for the growing population of humans in the Guadalupe River Basin have expressed satisfaction that "protections for the San Antonio River and Mission River basins remain" but lament that "few protections for the Guadalupe River were incorporated into the rules." Yet, it is GBRA that has statutory jurisdiction over the Guadalupe River and is responsible for either providing or developing surface water supplies to meet the growing water needs within the Guadalupe River Basin.

It is tempting, on this issue, to cast one side as pro-environment and the other as pro-development. But it is not that simple.

GBRA's stewardship of the Guadalupe River encompasses 10 counties, stretching from the Hill Country to the coast. U.S. Census Bureau data indicated a 35 percent increase in the Guadalupe River Basin population from 2000 to 2010. Hays County alone grew close to 70 percent and Comal County saw a nearly 40 percent increase, while Victoria also is seeing new economic activity for its citizens. The people of these 10 counties depend on the Guadalupe River, in all or part, for water - water for homes, businesses, agriculture, municipal and recreational uses.

The other stakeholders have no accountability for providing water to the residents and businesses of the Guadalupe River Basin. No surprise, then, that they are not as sensitive to the needs of this growing area and support an unbalanced approach to environmental flow regimes favoring maximum in-stream flows and set-asides for bays and estuaries on the coast.

But do not think that GBRA is not sensitive to the health of the state's coastal bays and estuaries, as well as the run of the river itself. It is GBRA that since 2001 has worked to enhance habitat for the endangered whooping crane with its partner the Guadalupe-Blanco River Trust. It is GBRA that in 2002 initiated and provided significant funding for a $2 million study by Texas A&M on the needs and feeding habits of the whooping crane, and it was GBRA that joined the Sierra Club in 1990 in a suit to halt over-pumping of the Edwards Aquifer to protect the endangered species that call the Comal and San Marcos springs home.

All the stakeholders saw the same scientific data. That data clears shows that the Guadalupe River Basin is healthy, even in spite of the drought. Further, there is no question that a simplified environmental flow regime, as prescribed in TCEQ's proposed rules, would both promote a sound ecology and be consistent with the urgent need to provide for the development of additional water supplies in the Guadalupe River Basin.

New water projects frequently take a decade or more to put in place. Restricting existing surface water permits is not the way to get a project done. The rules proposed by TCEQ, which also understands the need for balance, would allow the development of badly needed new water supplies without penalizing a growing population. Specifically relevant for those who live in the Guadalupe River Basin, the proposed TCEQ rules, if sensibly refined, will allow GBRA to serve this high-growth region.

The e-flow recommendations by the other 22 stakeholders - who have no accountability to the residents of the Guadalupe Basin - will put the economic future of this region in jeopardy.

It is time for a common-sense approach to managing water. Sound science demonstrates the stewardship of the Guadalupe River has kept the river healthy. Let's celebrate that and work to develop new sources of water to serve our people, businesses, and municipalities while continuing to protect the environment. The historic drought that has just scorched Texas already has begun slipping from our thoughts. Short memories have never produced new water supplies.

W.E. "Bill" West Jr., is general manager of the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority.



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