Extreme Water Authorities Is the Brazos river Authority overreaching in its attempts to expand a water empire?
BY S. PARKER
he Brazos River Authority (BRA) was created in 1929 by the Legislature to develop and manage the water resources of the largest river basin in Texas. Its territory runs, on average, about three counties wide all the way from the New Mexico border past Lubbock and Abilene, through its own headquarters in Waco, past College Station just skirting Houston as it narrows on the way to the Gulf of Mexico. With little state oversight, the BRA was conceived to operate as a keeper of the Brazos River basin. Similar river authorities across Texas engage in a wide variety of activities including: operating water supply and flood control reservoirs; running wastewater treatment plants; and studying and monitoring water quality and quantity. It is difficult to say whether the Legislature foresaw how these organizations would evolve. The river authorities themselves would have us believe that they are benevolent, holistic stewards of our water resources. Some river authorities, however, have embraced the lucrative and powerful business of selling water, ripening into hard-charging near-monopolies bound and determined to amass, control, and sell vast quantities of our public water. In the name of progress, the Lower Colorado, Guadalupe-Blanco, Trinity, Sabine, San Jacinto, and Brazos River authorities are involved to varying degrees in staking huge new claims on our rivers totaling well over 2.8 million acre-feet of water (an acre-foot of water is one acre, one foot deep). Their primary interest: to control and sell this water. The Brazos River Authority alone has requested a staggering million acre-feet of water. If its application is approved as submitted, the BRA will lord over every bit of remaining water available in the basin; water never to return to the public domain. Contained within these applications is an ominous trend. River authorities—some more aggressively than others—are heading toward locking up the very last public waters flowing in our streams. Texas already has a long tradition of handing over large shares of public water resources and not looking back. It is now widely acknowledged within the water community that too much was given away too easily. Until Texas permanently sets aside legitimate amounts of water in trust for the public and the environment, this dash to claim the last remnants of public water will continue unabated. n June 25, 2004, the BRA submitted water right application #5851 asking the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to grant it a new permit for a million-plus acre feet of annual water rights, enough water for six million people. The core requests in the BRA’s System Operation Application are akin to demanding every remaining logging right to an entire public forest valley (including rights to all the Christmas trees, woodpecker sawdust, and campfire ashes) without even knowing how or on whom you’ll unload all the timber. At its heart, the application involves two requests: one, legal control over one million acre-feet of water from within the Brazos basin mostly in order to sell it; and two, permission for unrestricted movement of various waters in and out of and up and down the Brazos basin, known as “operational flexibility.” The million acre-feet consists of a combination of 330,000 acre-feet of first-class water plus 670,000 acre-feet of second-class water. First-class water is called ‘firm supply’ and is so named because it is always there, even during the worst drought. It’s by far the more valuable supply that cities need. Second-class water or ‘interruptible supply’ is self-explanatory. Although intermittent, it can be used for things like farming or augmenting another water supply source. The implication of the BRA demanding every last available teaspoon of water is that it still wants even more water than remains in its own river basin. This makes sense since the authority’s application, in effect, also asks for broad permission to use the Brazos river beds as a convenient pipeline for transporting groundwater and surface water from other river basins and aquifers. Based on its application, it appears that the BRA doesn’t even know exactly to whom, where, or for what specific purpose it will sell much of the water requested. Casting a wide marketing net, the authority boldly asks for permission to sell, often for export, this water supply throughout any county, city or city retail utility that extends even a single inch into the Brazos River basin. In order to obtain a water permit the authority must get its proposal into the official state plan. This is because the TCEQ is not supposed to approve a new water right permit unless it is consistent with the state water plan. To accomplish this one must first introduce a proposed water right into at least one of the 16 regional plans. Instead of waiting a few months to pitch its proposal during the regular water planning cycle, the BRA launched its water marketing effort this January by stuffing its full request into the Houston area water plan (region H), using a far less-scrutinized amendment process. Interestingly enough, according to the current 50-year state water plan, the Houston region didn’t require this new proposal to meet its water needs. The BRA’s proposal was not included anywhere in the most recent water plan to come out of the 16 regional water-planning groups. When the BRA went ahead and filed its permit request with the TCEQ back in June 2004 the amount of water in its plan had yet to be approved by a single water-planning group. Despite this, BRA’s application declared its intention to peddle this new water supply to almost a third of the state’s planning regions. The BRA says the need for additional water is driven by two primary factors. As a supplier, it forecasts running short of water well before 2050. The BRA also claims, fairly, that approval of its application could displace other more environmentally disruptive and costly projects already in the state water plan. However, based on the details of its application and other projects already in the works, these two factors account for only about 165,000 acre-feet of the requested water. The amount of surplus water that would be produced is not spelled out in the application. It may be a moot point, anyway, since the BRA appears eager and intent on eventually selling as much water as possible to somebody, anybody. The BRA’s plan is based on the idea that by expanding its access to water, and freeing up both how it operates and accounts for water, it can wring out significantly more water from its reservoir system. While the underlying concept itself may sound reasonable enough, the crude way in which the BRA forecasts the eventual uses for the water is alarming. All the various possible uses are lumped together into one big, inscrutable ocean—details on uses and accounting procedures to be worked out later. This smacks of speculation. o propel its application through the permitting gauntlet, the BRA has portrayed its proposal as a good deal for the environment. It is courting the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department with the promise of dedicating water for the environment. The only catch is that the proposed arrangement is not currently allowed. The BRA announced its permit application in a press release with the curious subtitle: “Authority makes historic water donation to Texas Water Trust.” The Texas Water Trust was created by the Texas Legislature as a vehicle for dedicating water to the environment. The press release advances the position that taking one million acre-feet of water and then possibly rebating one-tenth of it back for the environment, with the blessings of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, would be great for the environment. Unfortunately, deposits of new water rights to the Texas Water Trust have been outlawed since 2003, when, in an apparent move to head off the San Marcos River Foundation’s effort to reserve water for the Whooping Crane [see, “The Rights of a River,” June 21, 2002], the Legislature imposed a moratorium until fall of 2005 on issuing these kinds of new water rights permits. Assuming, for the moment, that it will be possible in the future, the BRA’s water trust gambit appears designed to distract public attention from what the authority and the state have failed to do. The BRA’s application openly admits that there are no associated environmental studies anywhere in the entire Brazos River basin. The brief environmental analysis included in its application suggests that handing over all the remaining Brazos River water to the authority will improve stream flows and, by inference, the environment. (The BRA does confess that its proposal may reduce some river flows, although it expects impacts to be “minimal.”) At the same time the BRA fails to provide convincing evidence of how much water is actually needed for the environment or other public uses. In lieu of carrying out upfront environmental analyses the BRA is trying to strike a side-deal with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The BRA freely admits that the 100,000 acre-feet of water that it has proposed to earmark to the water trust is largely an arbitrary number. It has “no scientific or other basis” says an authority spokesperson, and consists of the less dependable, second-class water. But placating the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department with a nice round 100,000 acre-feet rebate might help speed approval of the BRA’s permit request. In any case, it could temper the environmental restrictions that the TCEQ might place on the BRA’s proposed water permit. It is difficult to predict the extent to which this open-ended application might lead the BRA to launder and intermingle waters through the Brazos basin. For example, in 2003, the authority formed an alliance with Boone Pickens’ Mesa Water Inc. for the potential purpose of assisting in peddling groundwater from Texas’ panhandle. As written, BRA’s request would allow unfettered transport of this type of water. It’s fair to ask, what is the risk anyway of local river authorities wielding expansive control over our state water resources? Well, considering the obvious parochial political influences on such authorities, one plausible outcome is an over-supply of state water. The resulting excess inventory of raw commodity can lead to costs so low that people naturally find ways to use it up even to the point of wasting the resource. Think free gasoline. In the case of water, this could translate into inefficient land development or profligate water consumption by existing customers at the expense of other users like wildlife. The best alternative for our Brazos basin and its environs may well be a greatly reined-in version of the BRA’s application. But the authority should be required to justify the need for every drop and declare up front, and in lucid detail, where water will come from and how this water will be moved. The water in question won’t be needed for decades, if at all. In the meantime, these more gratuitous and hasty water gambits may serve as a signal to us all that time may be running out for our rivers. S. Parker resides in central Texas. Additional reporting provided by Jake Bernstein.