Report highlights five Texas rivers threatened by water supply projects

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Environmental leaders call on water board to focus Prop 6 money on conservation and avoid projects harmful to rivers

Environment Texas Research and Policy Center

DALLAS – As local and state water officials start planning how to spend a new multi-billion dollar water infrastructure fund approved by voters last week, a new report highlights projects in the 2012 State Water Plan which could further harm Texas rivers. Environment Texas Research and Policy Center used the report to call on water officials to maximize the investment in water conservation and avoid water projects that could significantly damage aquatic ecosystems.

“Last week, Texans overwhelmingly supported a historic investment in cutting water waste and conserving water,” said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas Research and Policy Center. “Now it’s up to the water board to invest the money in a way that restores our rivers and streams while sustainably meeting communities’ water needs.”   

The new Environment Texas Research and Policy Center report, Down to the Last Drop: Wasting Water Endangers Texas’ Rivers, Fish and Wildlife, warns the state to avoid water projects harmful to Texas rivers, including the Trinity, Guadalupe and Sulphur rivers.

  • The Trinity River provides half of the freshwater in Galveston Bay, which supports an economically important oyster fishery. Adequate flows from the Trinity River are essential to protecting the bay, but the Houston region has proposed withdrawing more water from the river.
  • Water withdrawals from the Guadalupe River have led to the deaths of 23 birds in the world’s only remaining flock of migrating whooping cranes. Despite flows that are already inadequate, the 2012 water plan includes proposals for more diversions from the river.
  • The Sulphur River is threatened by a proposal to create the Marvin Nichols Reservoir to meet growing demand for water from the Dallas-Fort Worth region. Building the reservoir would flood 25,000 acres of increasingly rare bottomland forest.

“The State of Texas has consistently declined to implement common sense approaches to to maintain in-stream flows to the bays and estuaries – to the point where coastal ecosystems are now in peril,” said Annalisa Peace, Executive Director of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance.  “We would urge the Texas Water Development Board to make conservation the first priority in delegating the SWIFT funds.”

On November 5, Texas voters approved Proposition 6, which authorizes a new state water infrastructure fund backed with a $2 billion transfer from the state’s rainy day fund. An accompanying law directs that at least 20 percent of the funding support water conservation projects and another 10 percent for rural or agricultural water conservation projects. As a result, billions will be available for farmers to upgrade irrigation equipment, to cities to fix leaking municipal water mains and to businesses to install drought resistant landscaping or water-efficient appliances.

Wasteful water use, coupled with drought, has lowered water levels in Texas’ rivers. Half of measurements taken in August 2013 by the U.S. Geological Survey showed river water levels were less than 25 percent of normal and multiple measurements showed record-low water levels. Lower water levels hurt habitat, threaten wildlife, strain drinking water supplies, and disrupt outdoor recreational activities.

“Maintaining adequate freshwater inflows is crucial for Galveston Bay’s health,” said Bob Stokes, President of the Galveston Bay Foundation. “Oysters in Galveston Bay are particularly vulnerable to higher salinity levels that would come from the loss of freshwater inflows. The loss of oysters in Galveston Bay would provide not only a crushing ecosystem blow to the Bay, but also a crushing economic blow to the Bay area.”  

Wasteful water use occurs across Texas and throughout the economy, imperiling Texas’ water supply. Agricultural, municipal and industrial water consumers withdraw more water from rivers and aquifers than is necessary to irrigate crops, maintain landscaping, and produce electricity. At least 500 billion gallons of water are wasted each year, enough to meet the municipal water needs of 9 million Texans.

Demand for water is expected to rise as Texas adds 21 million residents by 2060. The Texas Water Development Board anticipates that 51 percent of new water supplies will have to come from rivers and streams as the state’s aquifers are increasingly depleted.

“Getting the money was just half the battle,” said Metzger.  “Now we must galvanize the same level of public demand—to spend that money in ways that restore our rivers rather than deplete them.”