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LCRA to Take Matagorda Bay Off Life Support?

UPDATE 9/19:

The LCRA Board voted 9-6 yesterday to seek emergency authorization from TCEQ to temporarily suspend freshwater inflows to Matagorda Bay.

ORIGINAL POST 9/12:

Matagorda Bay is the second largest estuary on the Texas Gulf Coast.  The Bay stretches over approximately 350 square miles and, in a normal year, receives an average of 1.8 million acre-feet of inflows from the Colorado River. So far this year, bay inflows have been about 150,000 acre-feet.   Tuesday, the LCRA Board met to discuss the fate of Matagorda Bay.  More about that in a moment – but first let’s explain how we got there.

The Colorado and Matagorda Bay

As the stewards of the Lower Colorado River, the LCRA is responsible for managing the Highland Lakes and administering their Water Management Plan (WMP). Under the terms of the WMP, LCRA is committed to pass water from upstream through the Highland Lakes in order to maintain certain conditions in the Colorado River and Matagorda Bay. The water traveling to the Bay is known as freshwater inflows and provides essential nutrients and sediments and helps to moderate salinity conditions needed to support fish and wildlife along with the seafood businesses, hunting, fishing, and nature tourism activities that depend on that fish and wildlife. This bay, or estuary, is extremely important to marine fish and shellfish reproduction because, by some estimates, 97% of these creatures spend at least some portion of their life cycle in an estuary.

The WMP contains triggers for different releases based on the combined storage of Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis.  If the combined storage is below 1.1 million acre-feet, like it is now, LCRA manages water contributions to Matagorda Bay under a “critical” management scenario.  This means, unless there is heavy runoff downstream of the dams, they are only providing a small fraction of the water the  organisms in Matagorda Bay need to do well.  Water demand upstream coupled with continued drought conditions means the LCRA has to make some hard decisions about who is and isn’t going to receive water if it doesn’t rain soon.

The Matagorda Bay estuary system essentially is on life support at these critical levels of inflow and has been for several years. As a result, conditions there are already really bad and would only get worse without the needed inflows. As the Water Management Plan acknowledges, the critical level of freshwater inflows is designed to provide a small sanctuary area near the mouth of the river where organisms can persist during severe drought conditions so they will be available to repopulate the larger bay when better rainfall conditions return.

IMG_4275

Matagorda Bay Marsh

The Decision

On Tuesday, the LCRA Board considered asking the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality if LCRA could cut off even those critical inflows for the bay. Although the Board agreed to honor its commitment under the WMP and allow water to flow downstream to the Bay this month, it also decided to seek emergency relief to reduce or suspend the obligation to make those releases for the remainder of the year.  While it is good that the LCRA Board decided to honor its immediate commitment to provide water to Matagorda Bay,  the decision to seek emergency relief for the remainder of the year could put the future well-being of Matagorda Bay and the communities and businesses that depend on it at undue risk.

The Impact

Clearly, the region is experiencing a severe drought, but we should not put the long-term health of the estuary system and the local economies that depend on it at such high risk while other non-essential uses of water are being allowed to continue in the Lower Colorado basin.  We need to ensure that we provide water for both people and the environment.

This is not about critters versus people.  The amount of water that the Water Management Plan requires to be released for Matagorda Bay is very small compared to the amount that is regularly being applied to lawns in the basin to keep them green.  Besides, lots of people depend on a healthy Matagorda Bay for their livelihoods and quality of life.

Texans need to steward our precious water supplies carefully all of the time and especially during a severe drought like the one that we are confronting today. Although the time may come, if drought conditions persist, when even life-support flows for the bay must be reduced, that time has not yet arrived.

Next Steps

Critical level releases will be made for the rest of this month. In the meantime, the LCRA Board will meet on September 18th to decide whether they are going to ask TCEQ for permission to completely discontinue or just to reduce the commitment to provide critical inflows for the bay during the rest of the year. Without adequate inflows, the future health of Matagorda Bay could be unnecessarily compromised.  Stay tuned.

Jennifer Walker

Water Resources Program Manager at Sierra Club - Lone Star Chapter
Jennifer has 15 years experience focusing on water policy issues in Texas with an emphasis on water planning, water conservation and bay and estuary protection issues. She and her family like to camp near rivers where they can listen to the frogs sing at night.

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