Goodbye to a River?

TCEQ proposes 'ridiculously low' standards for the Trinity River and Galveston Bay
by Published on

There are many ways to kill a river: dams, pollution, over-pumping. But the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) just added a new way: Turn a state process intended to save a river into the instrument of its destruction. That’s what is happening to the Trinity River in East Texas.

Over three years ago, through Senate Bill 3, the Texas Legislature created a complex process to figure out how much water is needed to maintain the ecology of streams, and the estuaries and bays that depend on freshwater inflows to sustain shrimp, oysters, crabs and gamefish like redfish and speckled trout. The stakes are high. In some river basins, rights have been handed out over the decades to more water than exists in the stream during dry periods. As water demand soars, the continued existence of rivers and certain coastal fisheries is in doubt.

Teams of scientists and stakeholders—agriculture, water suppliers, environmentalists—were tasked with studying each river-and-bay system and coming up with recommendations. In its wisdom, the Legislature staggered the process. The teams start in East Texas, where there’s more water, and move west until they get to the arid Rio Grande region. Theoretically, the going gets tougher as you head west. But the Trinity & San Jacinto Rivers and Galveston Bay process has proved unexpectedly contentious.

The scientific team split into two camps. One side, mostly engineers, argued that the science wasn’t complete enough to make detailed recommendations, and supported minimal flow standards. Water suppliers and river authorities favored this approach. The other side, mostly biologists, drafted extremely detailed flow recommendations that vary based on seasons and conditions, in effect roughly mimicking the natural rhythms. Water interests blasted the biologists’ proposal as unrealistic, arguing that it could “increase water shortages” and undermine planned reservoir projects.

TCEQ mostly sided with the first group when setting the minimum flow standard in the Trinity and San Jacinto Rivers. The standards are “ridiculously low,” says Myron Hess, manger of the Texas Water Programs for the National Wildlife Federation. “They don’t pass the straight-face test. These are flows that haven’t been seen in 50 years in a lot of places.”

Here’s a comparison between historical river flows, the conservation proposal and TCEQ’s proposal for the Trinity. Click for a larger image.

Hess is also concerned that the TCEQ proposal doesn’t reflect seasonal fluctuations. In the spring, for example, Texas rivers tend to swell from rainstorms. Post-larval shrimp depend upon big freshwater pulses into estuaries during this time of year to help them grow into juveniles.

“And summer is really critical for oysters and things like that,” said Hess. “It could have huge impacts.”

Right now, the Trinity/Galveston Bay system is relatively healthy. There’s plenty of freshwater, in part because the Metroplex is putting so much treated wastewater back into the stream. And indeed there could be a lot more water put into the Trinity if Dallas eventually pipes water from the Sabine River’s giant Toledo Bend Reservoir. However, the TCEQ standards would set a floor that could, over time, allow for a pretty significant depletion of the Trinity watershed.

The National Wildlife Federation and other conservation groups are pushing for TCEQ to adopt an alternative proposal. The three Perry-appointed commissioners will decide sometime next year.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.