Brazos River and Associated Bay & Estuary Area


Map of Brazos Basin and Bay Area

The Brazos River and Associated Bay and Estuary Area includes the Brazos River basin, the San Bernard River basin and the San Jacinto-Brazos coastal basin.

The Brazos River Basin is the second largest river basin by area in Texas. Its watershed stretches from the New Mexico–Texas border west of Lubbock, to the Gulf of Mexico, south of Houston. Rainfall varies greatly within the watershed: western portions receive 15-20 inches of annual precipitation while the eastern portions along the Coast receive 45-50 inches annually.

The basin is home to two fish species recently added to the federal Endangered Species Act: the sharpnose shiner and the smalleye shiner. Historically these fish occurred throughout most of the river basin, but are now found only in the upper reaches, above Possum Kingdom Reservoir. The protection of adequate flows could be the deciding factor for the survival of these species.

Site of minnow rescue on Brazos River during 2011 drought. Photo by Earl Nottingham, TPWD

Site of shiner rescue on Brazos River during 2011 drought
Photo courtesy of Earl Nottingham, TPWD

Unlike most Texas rivers that flow to the Gulf, the Brazos does not flow into a typical estuary and bay system. Instead, there is a small but very productive riverine estuary in the lower stretches of the river. This estuary, and the extensive marshlands surrounding it, serves as nursery habitat for immature fish and shellfish species which include juvenile white shrimp, brown shrimp, and blue crab.

Key Points Related to the Senate Bill 3 Environmental Flows Allocation Process in This Area

  • The stakeholder committee made unanimous recommendations for environmental flow standards for most locations in the basin. Those recommendations provide much less protection for pulse flows than was recommended by the expert science team as being adequate to protect a sound ecological environment.
  •  The stakeholder committee was not able to agree on recommendations for three locations in the upper portions of the basin where two species of small fish, which are under consideration for listing as threatened or endangered species, are still found.
  • The stakeholder committee did not make independent recommendations for freshwater inflows to the riverine estuary.
  • The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is currently developing  environmental flow protection standards to adopt for this area. Proposed rules are expected to be released for public comment in September, 2013, with final rules to be adopted by March 2014.
  • The Brazos River Authority has applied for a large water right permit, for 421,000 acre-feet of firm water rights—basically all that remains available in the basin—and hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of non-firm water rights. This permit application is currently being considered by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Where do things stand with the Environmental Flows Allocation Process for this region?

Scientific flow recommendations submitted

Using the best available science and guidance developed by the Science Advisory Committee, the Brazos Bay/Basin Expert Science Team developed scientific recommendations on the amounts and the timing of flows adequate to support a sound ecological environment. These scientific recommendations were submitted to the Stakeholder Committee and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality by March 1, 2012.

Stakeholder flow recommendations submitted

The Stakeholder Committee had six months to consider the scientific recommendations along with other factors, such as human water supply needs, and develop their own recommendations regarding the volume and timing of flow amounts they believe should be protected. After long and difficult deliberations, stakeholders were eventually able to agree on what to recommend—flow amounts and their timing—for 17 of the 20 chosen flow measurement gages. However, the committee failed to reach consensus on pulse flow recommendations at three gages in the uppermost portion of the basin.

At all locations, pulse flow protections recommended by the Stakeholder Committee were much lower than those recommended by the Expert Science Team. At the three locations where stakeholder consensus was not reached, pulse flow protections were the key point of disagreement. The dissenting stakeholders, representing environmental, recreational, and commercial fishing interests, asserted that better pulse flow protections than those recommended by the stakeholder group majority were necessary to support two fish species protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

A minority report prepared by the dissenting stakeholders and included with the committee report includes a proposal for a more protective pulse flow regime for the three gages. If inadequate flow protection standards are adopted by TCEQ, that will only increase the likelihood that the fish will be listed as threatened or endangered species, which would result in increased expense and uncertainty for current and future water right permit holders.

The stakeholder committee also recommended types of methods, or “strategies”, to be considered to help provide the recommended flows. The stakeholder committee submitted these recommendations to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Environmental Flows Advisory Group by September 1, 2012.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to set flow standards by March, 2014

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will consider the science team recommendations and the stakeholder recommendations, in addition to other factors and input, and will adopt environmental flow standards for the Brazos River/Bay & Estuary Area by March, 2014 through a formal rule-making process. (Click here to view rule-making schedule.) It is critically important for the public to provide input as the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality considers what levels of flow protection standards to put in place.

Stakeholder committee developing a Work Plan for Adaptive Management

While the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality works to adopt flow protection standards for application to new water rights issued in this area, the stakeholder committee has completed their second deliverable: a Work Plan for Adaptive Management. This is an effort designed to identify studies to address information gaps in order to inform future revisions to the flow standards and to better identify strategies to meet environmental flow standards. Please see the TCEQ website for meeting details and to sign up to receive updates on future meetings.

What you can do

As TCEQ works to develop its draft environmental flow protection standards for this area, it is an important time for the public to weigh-in with the TCEQ Commissioners about setting  standards that are sufficiently protective of the valuable terrestrial and aquatic resources of the Brazos River and its riverine estuary. Please consider contacting TCEQ and Governor Perry today to register your support for the adoption of strong environmental protection standards. Contact Jennifer Ellis if you would like more information on how you can help protect environmental flows in the Brazos River basin area.

For more ways to improve the outlook for instream flows and freshwater inflows in this and other basin/bay areas, please Get Involved.

Additional Resources

Please contact Jennifer Ellis for additional information about the process in this region.

Colorado & Lavaca Rivers/Matagorda & Lavaca Bays Area

In September 2012, TCEQ adopted environmental flow standards for the Colorado and Lavaca rivers and Matagorda and Lavaca bays.

Guadalupe, San Antonio, Mission, & Aransas Rivers/Mission, Copano, Aransas & San Antonio Bays Area

Despite receiving a majority recommendation from regional stakeholders, TCEQ adopted flow protection standards in September 2012 that were significantly weaker than those recommended by stakeholders. TCEQ will now apply these standards to any new water right permit they give out in the basin.

Nueces River/Corpus Christi & Baffin Bays Area

TCEQ is currently considering what levels of environmental flow protection standards to adopt for this river system and associated estuary, with a final decision expected by March 2014.

Rio Grande/Rio Grande Estuary & the Lower Laguna Madre Area

TCEQ is currently considering what levels of environmental flow protection standards to adopt for this river system and associated estuary, with a final decision expected by March 2014.

Sabine & Neches Rivers/Sabine Lake Bay Area

TCEQ adopted environmental flow standards for the Sabine and Neches river systems and Sabine Lake that are not adequate to protect a sound ecological environment. TCEQ should be considering revised standards in the near future.

Trinity & San Jacinto Rivers/Galveston Bay Area

TCEQ adopted environmental flow standards for the Trinity and San Jacinto river systems and Galveston Bay that are not adequate to protect a sound ecological environment. TCEQ should be considering revised standards in the near future.