Rules Leave Central and South Texas Fish and Wildlife at Risk

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) adopted rules on Wednesday, August 8th that fall short of protecting environmental flows in the Guadalupe, San Antonio, Mission and Aransas rivers and the San Antonio Bay system. These rules are intended to help ensure sufficient water flows in the rivers and into the bays by placing limits on new water rights permits. However, the new rules fail to adequately protect the region’s fish and wildlife – and the industries that depend on them for their survival.

This result is extremely frustrating because of the use of flawed modeling by TCEQ staff in developing the initial rule proposal. Following staff’s recommendation, TCEQ Commissioners reduced environmental protections far below the levels recommended by the region’s stakeholder committee in an apparent attempt to minimize effects on future water development. Without adequate justification, TCEQ failed to capitalize on the work of the stakeholders, who had struck a careful balance between future water supply needs and environmental protection.

For about two years, a group of diverse stakeholders worked with a team of scientist to develop environmental flow recommendations that provide adequate water for fish and wildlife while allowing for reasonable opportunities to develop future water supplies. These stakeholders included representatives of municipalities, river authorities, commercial fisheries, regional water planning, conservation groups, agricultural interests, industries and other groups. This process was established by Senate Bill 3 in 2007 to create flow rules for each of Texas’s major river basins and bays.

A Missed Opportunity

The stakeholder process was a difficult and time-consuming effort designed to address all reasonable concerns of the various interests. A vast majority of stakeholders (21 of the 24 members) recognized the value of finding a middle ground and endorsed a full set of recommendations. By rejecting so much of the stakeholders’ hard work, TCEQ missed an opportunity to adopt a balanced approach that could have helped minimize controversy over future surface water projects in the Guadalupe River basin.

Among other shortcomings, the adopted rules exclude protections for many of the high flow pulses that the scientists and stakeholders identified as critical to the health of the region’s river and bays. These surges of freshwater cue fish spawning, spread plant seeds, deliver nutrients and sediments to the bay and maintain bay salinity at levels needed to support healthy fish and wildlife, including oysters.

Before final adoption the Commissioners decided to add one level of high pulse flows in the Guadalupe River basin to the rules. This is definitely a step in the right direction but still not sufficient to protect the health of the rivers and bay system.

Senate Bill 3 directs TCEQ to adopt rules that “are adequate to support a sound ecological environment, to the maximum extent reasonable considering other public interests and other relevant factors.”  Because the TCEQ rules are not adequate to protect a sound ecological environment, particularly for the San Antonio Bay system, TCEQ needs to provide adequate justification for short-changing our rivers and bays and the natural heritage of all Texans. They failed to do so on Wednesday.

Better Results for Nearby Basin and Bays

However, on a more positive note, TCEQ also adopted a more reasonable set of rules for the Colorado and Lavaca rivers and Matagorda and Lavaca bays last Wednesday. Fortunately, in the case of the new rules adopted for this region, TCEQ adhered much more closely to unanimous stakeholder committee recommendations. However, even there, TCEQ did reduce protections for larger pulse flows recommended by the stakeholders.

The stakeholder committees for both groups will continue to meet in the coming year to refine and implement work plans for scientific research that will inform future revisions of these rules. To follow this process and learn more, visit our Texas Living Waters Project website.