Water Management: Swimming in Policy

Governor-appointed committee outlines water policy issues it intends to prioritize

Water policy is so complicated and broad in Texas that it's simply easier to label it in terms of its evolution, from water rights to water planning and distribution to, more recently, aspects of water conservation, such as environmental flows.

The issue of environmental flows – how the flow of water is maintained in streams and out to estuaries to preserve ecosystems – encompasses so many broad issues in this state that it requires the coordinated efforts of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation, and the Texas Water Development Board. All three agencies have been meeting since last legislative session, via a governor-appointed committee, to hammer out some agreement on what environmental flows mean, how they should be defined by basin, what science would define a "healthy" ecosystem, and how the state intends to monitor its progress. This week the committee outlined a list of issues it intends to prioritize, including a – excuse the pun – flowchart to talk about how each state agency would play a role in the interplay of water and land issues.

The science used to defend the decision is critical. The head of a nine-member science advisory committee, Robert Brandes, charged with reviewing the state's current methodology, told the committee this week that the state's methodology and verification of flows is lacking, especially when it comes to finding long-term solutions for drought conditions. This reiterates the committee's findings in 2004.

The sheer lack of science expertise across the state to do studies on each and every basin is a serious challenge to a comprehensive look at in-stream flows. Finding an expert on flow in Austin is easy. Finding one in Lubbock is harder. The committee may centralize the science "brain trust" at the state level, but, as one speaker put it, this plan has to have enough science to satisfy the state but enough local buy-in to satisfy the community. Everyone has to agree on the science used.

Water rights is one of the state's touchier issues, and the nonprofit San Marcos River Foundation raised the stakes back in 2000 when they filed an application for all the unallocated surface water rights on the Guadalupe River. The application was intended to raise the point that, in some river basins, so many water rights had been allocated that the ecosystems of the river were being endangered; streams and bays are overextended, especially in areas where homes and industry present high demand.

Most likely, local stakeholder groups will be the ones who decide how to manage the situation. Is angling on the bay as important as the critical need for rice farmers? Will an industry that can provide hundreds of jobs to a region trump keeping the water flows necessary to preserve sensitive species? And can local stakeholders decide, with some confidence, if they have the right solution to how much water can be permitted?

The committee, a cross-section of stakeholders, is being watched carefully by the environmental community. It must finalize its recommendations for legislation and present them to the governor, lieutenant governor, and speaker of the house by year's end.

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water management, state Water policy, environmental flows, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation, Texas Water Development Board, Robert Brandes, Water rights, San Marcos River Foundation, Guadalupe River

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