A river, John Graves wrote in Goodbye to a River, his 1960 homage to the upper middle Brazos, is “one of the real wholes, but to feel the whole is hard because to know it is harder still.”
For those who know the mighty Brazos, or at least a piece of it, the feeling these days is one of discomfort. In 1957, when Graves canoed his stretch of the Brazos, between Possum Kingdom Lake and Lake Whitney, it was to take stock of the river before an onslaught of dams changed it forever. Even though only one of the dams was eventually built, some nature lovers have been waving goodbye to the Brazos ever since.
Over the decades, the river has been increasingly drawn on by cities and the Comanche Peak nuclear power plant, and plagued by fish-killing golden algae. But perhaps the greatest threat to the river comes from the agency charged with overseeing it: the Brazos River Authority.
For the past seven years, the authority has been angling to lock up every last drop of water left in the Brazos. In 2004, the authority filed for a permit with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for the right to withdraw up to a million acre-feet per year from the Brazos and use it however it sees fit.
The plan is an audacious, perhaps unprecedented, water grab by a quasi-public entity in Texas. In October, an administrative law judge—after five years of legal proceedings—recommended that TCEQ either deny the permit or require the Brazos River Authority to explain its plans more thoroughly. The judge agreed with interested parties like Friends of the Brazos River and Dow Chemical, which relies on river water at its coastal Freeport facility, that the authority has failed to show what impact its plans would have on cities, industry, agriculture and the environment.
Now it’s up to three Perry appointees at TCEQ—not known for their environmental sensitivities—to accept the judge’s recommendation or grant the river authority’s water rights request.
“If they get that water, the river’s screwed,” says Ed Lowe, president of Friends of the Brazos. “It’s already seriously degraded, and to me, the river as we know it is going to be gone.”
The outcome could have huge consequences for other major river basins, said Austin environmental attorney Rick Lowerre, who is representing the Friends of the Brazos.
“They want to be the monopoly that everyone has to buy the water from,” Lowerre says. If Brazos River Authority gets its way, it may set a precedent.
Other river authorities could soon try to lock up the last of the freely flowing water. Every molecule in many of the state’s water systems is accounted for, assigned to some entity to consume. Other rivers are close to being fully appropriated. The question is, will we save a few drops for a river to be a river?