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The View Ahead

Commissioners from the three Texas agencies in charge of water see more conservation coming.

Interviews by Tom Harvey

Three state agencies share the primary responsibility for Texas water, with each agency playing a particular role in the planning, conservation and regulation of the state's most important natural resource.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department plays a scientific and advisory role with regard to water. Its mission is to assure that the state provides water for fish and wildlife, and when needed, TPWD participates in the regulatory process. In 1985 TPWD, along with the Texas Water Development board (TWDB), was directed by the legislature to determine how much fresh water Texas bays need to remain healthy. The TWDB is in charge of assisting regional water planners in developing regional water plans for 16 Texas regions, preparing the State Water Plan and providing financial assistance for water-related projects.

The third agency that manages water in Texas is the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality (TCEQ), formerly the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission. TCEQ regulates surface water use. The agency makes its rulings in part on the science on environmental water provided by the TPWD and the TWDB.

Key commissioners and directors from each agency meet regularly to discuss their concerns about the future of water in Texas. To get their perspective, a commissioner from each agency was asked to talk about the future of environmental water in Texas.

Understanding the Science of Environmental Inflows

Armstrong (TPWD): The three agencies are reaffirming their efforts to work cooperatively, and there have been new understandings. One of the most important involves the science developed over the past 10 years by the three agencies on freshwater inflow needs of bays and estuaries. We agree that this science is of the highest quality and should represent a benchmark for evaluating future scientific discoveries. We're also developing a plan for the three agencies as we embark on research on instream flows for rivers and streams. We're agreeing at the beginning of the process on mutually acceptable scientific methodology and modeling that will be reviewed by the National Academy of Science. In addition to science developed by our three agencies, we welcome credible input from all quarters, private and public, industry and academia.

Madden (TWDB): We concur completely with Armstrong's conclusion that the science is the best. One of our most important jobs at this point is to present these important studies to the public in an understandable and meaningful manner. Since the beginning of the bays and estuaries program, a vitally important element of the state's environmental flow programs has been the effort to obtain scientific peer review. We're committed to improving this work, and I would point out that we have already updated our original model on Nueces Bay, are currently updating our model on Matagorda Bay and are currently working with stakeholders to develop a scope of work to update our original model on Galveston Bay.

White (TCEQ): I wholeheartedly [agree]... that the methodology and modeling used in these studies offer a sound scientific approach for determining the freshwater inflow needs of Texas bays and estuaries. The TCEQ must consider this science in issuance of water rights permits within 200 miles of the Texas Coast. The Water Code requires the TCEQ to assess the effects of those permits on the bays and estuaries and consider the studies and other available information. By law the commission shall include in the permit environmentally beneficial inflows to the extent practicable when considering the public interest.

I believe there are valid questions about the quality and quantity of data in the seven different studies. But the bottom line is that we agree that the methodology in the studies is scientifically sound and provides a benchmark for the assessment of other studies.

The Potential for Over-Appropriation of Texas Rivers

White: The question regarding potential over-appropriation of Texas rivers is difficult to answer. We allocate water rights based on water availability in a time of drought. One can simply answer the question that in a time of drought there are a number of areas of the state that are over-appropriated. The reverse answer is that in a wet year, there is probably available water in almost all of our rivers most of the time.

At TCEQ we use the 75-75 rule - we typically grant permits if there will be 75 percent of the water requested in a permit application available 75 percent of time. The exception is municipal use. This is determined on the basis of 100 percent of water requested being available 100 percent of the time, because of the state's responsibility to assure the populace that their basic water needs will be met. Most river basins have some unappropriated flow some of the time. There are the extremes - the Canadian, Red, Sabine and San Jacinto at points well downstream almost always have water. The Colorado at a point downstream still has some unappropriated flow, but only about 20 percent of the time. The rest is already permitted. The Nueces, just above Corpus, has unappropriated flow only about five percent of the time.

The rest of the major river basins fall somewhere between those extremes. The answer is highly dependent on where in the basin you are, so it's not accurate to speak about entire river basins. In the lower Sabine there is lots of water well downstream, but halfway up on the Louisiana border, there is available water only about 20 percent of the time. These figures come from many years of data from stream gauges managed by the U.S. Geological Survey, although some rivers have more of those gauges than others do.

Environmental Water and Regional Planning

Madden: There are several statutory requirements for financing of water projects that ensure adequate water for the environment. For example, the TWDB may not finance a water-supply project unless the needs to be addressed by it will be addressed in a manner consistent with the regional water plan. All TWDB-funded surface water supply projects have been designed based on consideration of the environment.

Senate Bill 1 in the late 1990s created a regional water planning process based on several guiding principles. One of these principles is that the regional water plans are to be developed to "protect the agricultural and natural resources of the region." To achieve this goal, the regional water planning groups were required to analyze all new surface water projects in a manner that ensured sufficient water is left in the rivers and streams to maintain a healthy environment.

Following requirements in Senate Bill 2 of the 2001 legislative session, the level of environmental evaluation was expanded. It now requires a quantitative reporting of effects on the environment for all water management strategies recommended to meet future water supply needs. This requirement will allow the regional water planning groups to make an even more informed decision regarding the environmental impacts of the strategies they select.

The Possibility of Water Shortages

White: The figure to which I always return is that if none of the proposed water-supply strategies in the current regional plans were implemented, in the year 2050 based on population projections, 38 percent of the state's population would not have sufficient water supplies to meet water supply needs during drought conditions. In a variety of communities we already see short-term shortages. In other words, we're talking about near-term water shortages within this decade, not merely something that might occur 45 years from now. The regional plans and the state plans provide us with a way to address these projected shortages by utilizing water conservation strategies and the development of new resources.

Water Conservation Needs

White: I am a great believer in water conservation or efficiency as a goal for individual behavior as well as municipal, industrial and agricultural use. We need to take bold steps to reuse water and use less water. It's a primary way to increase inflows to our bays and estuaries. Through the regional planning process, I think more people are aware of how potentially scarce and therefore how valuable water is.

The cities of San Antonio and El Paso have dramatically reduced per capita use in all kinds of creative ways. Water conservation is no longer a prudent thing to do; it's an imperative in this state. In Texas, the future of our quality of life as humans and the quality of our environment depends on our efforts in water conservation.

Armstrong: There are good options available and all of them should be entertained. First and foremost, the marketplace must be allowed to work to the fullest extent possible. If Texans demand abundant and clean water supply, then they must be willing to pay for it. By that I mean pricing that reflects the actual cost of water, for developing, transporting and delivering water to consumers. Right now, consumers do not pay that full cost. Higher prices that reflect the actual cost of water will encourage conservation. Conservation standards have a role to play as well. We might look at a reservation system as part of the solution.

Environmental permitting for instream flows is certainly one tool. Providing sufficient incentives so that the Texas Water Trust can work as it was envisioned is an option. Many states have used, to varying degrees, these and other tools.

But it's important that we in Texas avail ourselves of all options to fashion a policy that works for Texas. Finally, we must not overlook the vital role of the private landowner, which has always been the cornerstone of conservation in Texas.

Coordinating Water Development and Conservation

Madden: Conservation and water planning cannot and should not be severed. This is a statewide problem that should not be limited by delineation of rural and metropolitan needs, industrial or agricultural needs or environmental flows. Plentiful supplies for human consumption and use are the alpha and omega of all of our efforts. The 2002 state water plan contains an unprecedented list of water conservation strategies. The governing board of the TWDB authorized its staff at the December 2002 meeting to work with legislative leaders to address statutory language that creates a water conservation task force.

This task force will be charged with evaluating and making legislative recommendations to the 79th Texas Legislature on a number of Texas water conservation issues.

White: I believe local people should chart their own futures. The El Paso and San Antonio examples show how people can do it themselves. Having said that, we are very near a point where, because of water scarcity and environmental needs, it might be appropriate for the state to encourage new water conservation methods if local municipalities don't do so.

I don't think we need uniform standards - Lufkin has a lot more water than San Angelo. To require costly auditing appropriate for one city might be inappropriate for another. I don't think one size fits all. There are a variety of ways to meet consistent goals. A water audit might be one way. San Antonio used rate structures - that might now work elsewhere. El Paso has used water ordinances. These are some of the options to consider.

Armstrong: The marketplace should play the leading role. Let pricing that more accurately reflects the actual cost of water drive conservation efforts. I do not believe in top down control. I believe in the voluntary exercising of choices and incentives to motivate people to do the right thing. But having said that, there will be a role to play by the cities and regions in setting conservation standards and goals. For example, San Antonio has a water shortage, so they've had to pay higher prices and institute water rationing. If water utilities included the actual cost of water development in monthly water bills, people and businesses would conserve more.

I really do believe that we have a golden opportunity right now to lead the way in the United States in formulating water policy before it's too late, while we have a chance to chart our own course. If we do it now, we'll all have to make sacrifices and adjustments, but if we wait, it's going to hurt worse and we will have many fewer options. Do it now and get it right. Wait 20 years and you're going to face choices much more painful than those before us now.

Who's Minding Our Water?

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

Katharine Armstrong is a fifth-generation Texan raised on her family's South Texas cattle ranch, an artist and an avid outdoorswoman. She was appointed to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in 1999 by Gov. George W. Bush and named chairman in 2001 by Gov. Rick Perry. Armstrong attended Southwestern University and the University of Texas, then worked in investment banking at Smith Barney & Company in New York. A founding member of the Dream Team of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, she has served on several boards, including the selection committee for the White House Fellows Program. She currently serves on the advisory councils for the Harte Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies and the James Madison Book Award.

TPWD mission: "To manage and conserve the natural and cultural resources of Texas and to provide hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation opportunities for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations."

  • 2003 operating budget: $203.3 million
  • Authorized employees - 3,035.5
  • Main water resource functions:
    • Review and comment on wastewater discharge permits issued by TCEQ
    • Conduct research on water needs for river instream flows and inflows to bays and estuaries
    • Monitor fish and wildlife populations affected by quality and quantity of water resources
    • Law enforcement: enforce environmental laws that protect water quality
    • Fish and wildlife kills: investigate kills caused by contaminant spills, seek civil restitution from responsible party

Texas Water Development Board

Wales Madden, Jr., board member of the Texas Water Development Board, is an attorney in private practice who serves on the Community Advisory Board of Wells Fargo Bank in Amarillo. Gov. George W. Bush appointed him to the Texas Water Development Board in January 1998. He is a member of the Amarillo and American bar associations, the State Bar of Texas and the Texas Bar Foundation. He serves as a trustee for the University of Texas Law School Foundation and is a former member of the boards of trustees for the University of Texas System and Amarillo College. Madden received his bachelor's and law degrees from The University of Texas.

TWDB mission: "To provide leadership, technical services and financial assistance to support planning, conservation and responsible development of water for the State of Texas."

  • 2003 operating budget: $36.4 million
  • Authorized employees: 312.5
  • Main functions:
    • Collect and disseminate groundwater and surface water data
    • Coordinate regional water planning process and develop state water plan.
    • Manage water development financial assistance programs that provide about $600 million per year in loans and grants, mostly for municipal water-wastewater projects

Texas Commission on Environmental Quality

Kathleen Hartnett White, commissioner for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, runs a 115-year-old ranching operation with her husband in Jeff Davis and Presidio counties. She was appointed to the Texas Water Development Board in 1999 and left that position when Gov. Rick Perry appointed her to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in 2001. A writer and consultant on environmental laws, natural resource policy and ranching history, White received her bachelor's and master's degrees from Stanford University. She studied comparative religion at Princeton University and law at Texas Tech University. She has served as director of the Ranching Heritage Association and as a member of several water and cattle associations.

TCEQ mission: "To protect our state's human and natural resources consistent with sustainable economic development. Our goal is clean air, clean water, and the safe management of waste."

  • 2003 operating budget: $395.5 million
  • Authorized employees: 3,046.5
  • Main water resource functions:
    • Water rights permitting: decide who may use Texas surface water.
    • Wastewater discharge permitting: regulate industrial plants, municipal treatment plants and similar facilities
    • Water quality monitoring: surface and groundwater data collection and dissemination
    • Water quality protection: set Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) of allowed contaminants for lakes, rivers, bays. Can result in stricter wastewater permitting to improve water quality.
    • Law enforcement: enforce environmental laws that protect water quality

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