What are environmental flows?
Environmental Flows is a term we use to describe managing our freshwater resources in a way that mimics Mother Nature. Based on well-defined science, Environmental Flows express the quantity, quality and timing of water that are necessary to sustain a river, wetland or coastal zone and the associated fish and wildlife.
Think of it this way: each river has its own unique patterns that align with nature’s cycles to support flourishing ecosystems, all the way from the river’s source to the point where its waters flow into the ocean or a bay. The health of a river system and the many human and wildlife populations it sustains are dependent upon the river’s ability to continue flowing as closely as possible to its natural patterns.
If too much water is taken from a river, or if the river’s natural flow is altered too dramatically through human-imposed construction, its natural flow patterns can be crippled. The rippling impacts of irresponsible river diversions are widespread and hard-felt.
Why are environmental flows in danger?
In many of Texas’ rivers, the water that has been promised through water rights is not available during droughts. Although many of these water rights are not currently being fully used, that could change as the state’s population continues to grow.
As demands increase, the impacts on our rivers could be severe – we saw this in 2001 and again in 2002 when the Rio Grande failed to reach the Gulf of Mexico for the first time in recorded history. This sobering event was the result of drought and human alterations, such as numerous reservoirs that redirected the Rio Grande’s water flows and prevented them from reaching the Gulf.
We have also seen the devastating impacts that the overuse of groundwater can have on rivers and streams. Jacob’s Well, a beloved Hill Country gem, has gone dry twice in the past decade for the first times in recorded history. Similarly, Comanche Springs in Fort Stockton once gave rise to a 30-mile long stream. As a result of groundwater pumping for agriculture, the spring has ceased to flow except for brief periods during winter months when rainfall recharge and the absence of pumping combine to raise aquifer levels.
If we manage our water resources wisely, we can have the water we need for cities, industry and agriculture, while still leaving adequate water flowing in our rivers and into our coastal bays. We, as Texans, must meet this challenge, because environmental flows are not only the key to sustaining our natural heritage, but, fundamentally, healthy rivers and bays sustain us all.