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.

Rio Grande Fails to Reach the Gulf of Mexico for the First Time in 2001 Photo courtesy of TPWD

Rio Grande Fails to Reach the Gulf of Mexico, 2001
Photo courtesy of TPWD

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.

Get Involved

Learn how you can help at home, in your community and at the state level to keep water flowing in Texas streams and rivers and into our estuaries.

Senate Bill 3 Environmental Flows Process

Learn about Texas’ process to determine the water needed to maintain healthy rivers and estuaries and how we can protect or restore these flows.

Brazos River and Associated Bay & Estuary Area

The Brazos River basin is the third largest river in Texas; its watershed stretches from the New Mexico–Texas border west of Lubbock, to the Gulf of Mexico, south of Houston. 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.

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.

Strategies to Keep Rivers Flowing and Bays Healthy

Useful Links and Resources

Useful links to additional information on protecting water in rivers and flowing into bays.

Water Rights and Flows Protection in Texas

Since 1985, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and its predecessor agencies have included some level of environmental flow protections on new water rights. However, the level of protection varies widely from permit to permit, and unfortunately, over 90% of the water rights currently authorized were issued before 1985 and have no environmental conditions.

What Are Environmental Flows?

Environmental Flows are the quantity, quality and timing of water that are necessary to sustain a river, wetland or coastal zone and associated fish and wildlife.