Threats to Environmental Flows
Texas is growing faster than any other state in the nation; the state’s population may double by mid-century. Projections, such as the National Wildlife Federation’s 2004 report Bays in Peril, indicate that many of the state’s estuaries could end up deprived of adequate freshwater on a frequent basis, particularly in drier years, if we do not take aggressive action to implement sufficient environmental flow protections.
In many of Texas’ rivers, water rights have been given out for more water than would be available during droughts. Currently many of these water rights are not being fully used, but that could change as the state’s population continues to grow. The impacts on our rivers could be severe. In the summer of 2001 and again in 2002 the Rio Grande, for the first time in recorded history, failed to reach the Gulf of Mexico due to extremely low flows. The river was low from a combination of drought and human alternations, such as the two very large reservoirs on the main stem of the Rio Grande along the border with Mexico and numerous others on its tributaries. This is a sobering fate for the “great river” that once supported extensive riverboat traffic upstream to Roma.
Overuse of groundwater also has an impact on rivers and streams. A spring known as Jacob’s Well in the Hill Country gives rise to Cypress Creek, which merges with the Blanco River and eventually flows into San Antonio Bay. Jacob’s Well, which had never stopped flowing in recorded history, has now gone dry twice in the past decade due to increased groundwater use from population growth in the area. 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 entirely 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 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.