Naked City

Spare the Rod

It's never been easy being a trout bum in Texas. Trout anglers dream of catching fish more likely to be found in the cool streams of the Rockies than in the heart of the Hill Country. But as the 3,000-plus members of the Guadalupe River chapter of Trout Unlimited (GRTU) will attest, it can be done. The group's aggressive stocking program below Canyon Dam, which receives assistance from Texas Parks and Wildlife, has turned the waters of the Guadalupe about an hour south of Austin into a first-rate trout stream. But if plans by the Guadalupe Blanco River Authority (GBRA) to divert water from Canyon Reservoir go forward, anglers worry that they may lose this recreational resource for good.

Veteran Austin environmental attorney Stuart Henry made that argument on behalf of GRTU before the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) on Wednesday, May 9, as the state evaluated the GBRA's application to begin sending water to Bexar County and the greater San Antonio area rather than letting it flow down the river. Trout Unlimited and other groups opposing the GBRA proposal appeared at the meeting seeking the right to formally challenge the plan in a contested case hearing before the conservation agency.

GBRA defends its proposal, which calls for pumping nearly twice as much water from the lake as is now permitted, saying that it will help alleviate a statewide water shortage. That position was supported at the TNRCC meeting by a spokeswoman for Rep. Edmund Kuempel (R-Seguin), who serves as chair of the State Recreational Resources committee in the Texas House.

GRTU is asking the TNRCC to ensure that the fishery and other amenities along the Guadalupe River, which is also used by tubers and other water enthusiasts during the summer months, are not harmed by the river authority's plan to increase the yield from Canyon Reservoir from 50,000 acre-feet to 90,000 acre-feet to meet the demands of development. (An acre-foot is what it takes to cover a single acre in a foot of water.) Trout Unlimited contends that the TNRCC should give trout the same protection as native fish species by maintaining minimum flows in the river, which no longer supports its indigenous inhabitants. The group is also working to maintain minimum water levels that would allow trout to survive through the summer months.

One person who isn't sold on TU's arguments for maintaining river flows is TNRCC executive director Jeffrey A. Saitas, who last August rejected GRTU's request for a contested case hearing. "The trout which are raised in the river are not a native species, not part of the natural environment, and are stocked and replaced by humans," Saitas wrote as part of his finding that GRTU had no right to protest GBRA's plan before TNRCC. Fortunately for the anglers, the commission's own Public Interest Counsel office has defended their case against GBRA, noting that GRTU has met all state requirements for a contested case hearing. Last Wednesday, the TNRCC knocked down all other petitioners for a contested case, leaving Trout Unlimited the last entity that may receive a hearing. The commissioners also asked the group to try to find common ground with GBRA before the TNRCC revisits its request for a contested case again in June.

For his part, Henry is extremely reluctant to meet with GBRA, noting that negotiations fell through last year after Trout Unlimited lost the representation of the lawyers that preceded Henry. After the hearing, Henry told reporters that the group's only goal was to ensure that it gets "party status" on the GBRA application, so that it will have legal standing as the application process goes forward. "Without party status, we have no leverage in this matter," Henry said during the meeting, "We have been negotiating with GBRA for a year and a half, and they will not come to an agreement."

It's unclear if GBRA general manager Bill West is echoing members of the TNRCC or if they're echoing him, but he maintains that the problem boils down to whether the state wants to let the river authority give consideration to non-native species over human needs. With water planning forcing tough choices throughout Texas, he adds, the brouhaha over the contested case amounts to more than a matter of principle. West says the TNRCC would be setting a grave precedent if it allowed anglers' concerns to restrict the manner in which human demand for water is satisfied. "Many river authorities are accused of chasing the almighty dollar," he says, "but our rates are cost-based per state regulation. The most efficient use of this resource is our bottom line."

Still, Trout Unlimited has emerged as a champion not just for the anglers, but for residents of Canyon Lake, who crowded the TNRCC hearing room last week, bearing signs that read "No way GBRA" and "Save the Lake," applauding some of Henry's theatrics, and striving to let the commissioners know that they feared the plan would permanently depress lake levels and lead to economic ruin for their yet-to-be incorporated community. "GBRA tried to slip this by us," says Canyon Lake resident Bill Womack. "This is a bad deal. If they get this, the reservoir will drop no matter what," making it more difficult to generate hydroelectric power and sending tourists elsewhere. "The problem is that we don't recognize that Texas is a desert, so instead we want to stick a Band-Aid here and stick a Band-Aid there. It just blows my mind."

West counters that the proposed yield increase of 40,000 acre-feet from Canyon Lake follows a proven pattern of prioritizing human consumption over electricity generation. He says the same model has been employed successfully by the Lower Colorado River Authority, and that it can be effectively duplicated by GBRA without harming the community -- and perhaps without even destroying the trout fishery on the Guadalupe. Lake levels and river flows will stay virtually the same, West says, and he anticipates that a little educational outreach will quell the furor of the Canyon Lakers. "Canyon Lake is the crown jewel of the Guadalupe," West says. "It's in our best interest to keep it at the same level where it's been. Operating levels will not change; we're simply changing the policy from a water policy where the priority was electricity to one where the priority is human consumption."

Still, TU and the Canyon Lake residents both say they are willing to take the case to court if the TNRCC doesn't allow a contested case. This week, although they've long missed the official deadline to be considered, the citizen activists petitioned for a contested case, a move that paves the way for Canyon Lake residents to compel a legal interest in the matter. "We're going to take 'em to federal court," says Womack. "Tell 'em that."

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