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Dismembering Texas rivers: Is your arm of a river protected?

Walnut Creek. That’s the name of the river my family loves. We love looking for fossils when the creek is low or the creek bed dry, meditating to the sound of calming water running over rocks when it’s high, or just floating in the deeper pools under the Texas sun.

Our creek is often low, but when it gets flowing, which it has at times during the past few years, it’s an incredible sight to see: our little tributary, just one small arm of the Lower Colorado River that picks up water from numerous other tributaries as it flows downstream to serve fresh water to Matagorda Bay.

Matt and Pela Schmitt meditate in the sun by Walnut Creek, Austin, TX.

At least, that’s the vision. But wait. I just mentioned that Walnut Creek runs dry at times. You may be thinking, “Doesn’t Texas have rules to protect our rivers from being over-permitted and over-drawn? Isn’t the water flowing through our rivers protected so that it can flow all the way to the Gulf, supporting wildlife habitat, critters and the humans who get to enjoy all of the rivers throughout the state?”

Red Eared Slider turtles

Red Eared Sliders, Photo Source: Texas Parks and Wildlife Dept.

The state’s environmental regulatory agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), created rules around a decade ago that were supposed to make sure there is enough water flowing in rivers down to Texas bays. But actually, since then there have been a lot of riverbeds that have still seen times with no water.

One key reason for this is the fact that a lot of times the state is looking at certain measurement points, a subset of USGS gauges in the larger rivers, to make sure there’s enough water flowing to keep river systems healthy, but it’s often looking downstream of a confluence, where two rivers come together, to take these measurements. And at these points, there is no one is checking to see if all of the water at the measurement points is coming from two healthy rivers, or one healthy river and one dry creek bed.

There are hundreds of creeks that are left with no measurement points except where they join the larger river bodies.

Here is a simple example. In the picture below, if you travel upstream from the city of Cuero (represented by the star), you see a blue dot (at the end of the red arrow). That blue dot represents one of only five TCEQ flow measurement points on the Guadalupe River, whose two forks converge to run for 230 miles. And look where it is: downstream of the confluence where two rivers converge. To TCEQ, as long as a certain amount of water passes that point in the river, the agency can approve water right permits that allow more water to be taken out of the river. It doesn’t matter which of the two rivers converging upstream of that point brought the water down.

(While there are some larger tributaries, like the San Marcos river, that do have a gauge that protect environmental flows, many of the smaller tributaries do not.)

Photo Credit: GBRA.org

If you have two rivers that converge, and then you measure the water below where they meet, you should get a measurement that is the sum total of what each river contributed, right? But that doesn’t mean that each river contributed half of the water flowing past that point.

When you think about it, water, often called the “lifeblood” of Texas, is actually pretty similar to the blood that gives each of us life. Like veins and arteries, rivers and creeks are connected, flowing systems with larger vessels for the liquid to pass through (like the main stem of a large river or the aorta near your heart) and smaller vessels (like the creeks that cover our state, or veins and arteries that reach out into our fingers and toes).

Now imagine that someone came along and said, “I’ll protect you and your entire circulatory system by making sure you always have enough blood flowing to stay healthy.”

Pretty helpful, it would seem. Then imagine that, instead of protecting the entire system, you were told that only your torso would be protected. You’d be pretty scared about the future of your arms, legs, fingers, toes, and all of those other parts that also need to survive, right?

Well, the TCEQ, by only protecting water in the main stems of the largest rivers, has taken a similar stance on how to protect Texas rivers. But protecting the main stem of a river does not stop a tributary, like my and so many other people’s Walnut Creek, from drying up.

So next time you’re at your favorite creek, think about whether it’s protected by TCEQ’s rules. Is it at the right location where they measure the flow? Or are you below a confluence? Because, if so, you could very easily lose your arm of the river come next drought, and that would be perfectly legal under current Texas rules.

Don't let your river run dry. Take action.

Don’t let your favorite river run dry!

Do you own land on a river or a water right from TCEQ? If so, contact us to see how you can use that water right or beautiful riverfront property to keep your river flowing.
You can help by reaching out to us at info@texaslivingwaters.org and letting us know where you live and that you want to help. Help can come in many ways and the rivers can’t speak for themselves. So speak up for them today!

Annie Schmitt
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Annie Schmitt

Counsel at National Wildlife Federation
A former private practice attorney, Annie uses her past legal experience to represent wildlife and bring a voice for Texas’s rivers and streams to the negotiating table. She spends her free time mentoring students and traveling as much as possible, visiting (and rafting, canoeing or just floating in) different bodies of water.
Annie Schmitt
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2 Comments

  • robin

    Important points made here, but its worth noting that low flow or dry spells are only an issue when they deviate from the natural flow regime! We know that some small tributaries are ephemeral by nature.

    March 8, 2019 at 4:18 pm
    • Annie Schmitt

      Thanks for your comment and we couldn’t agree more. A natural flow regime is incredibly important to a river and the habitat it supports. Ephemeral and intermittent rivers are both incredibly important to the entire Texas riverine system and don’t need water in them year-round. The dry times, when plants can take root without their seeds getting swept away, can be just as important as the wet times, when pulse flows can provide water over the sides of the banks to keep riparian life thriving. What we hope is that TCEQ will strive to protect that entire regime, along all tributaries, with their environmental flow regulations. We believe that protecting just the mainstem doesn’t really get to the heart of protecting all of Texas’s rivers, and little loopholes like measuring below a confluence can definitely game the system in meeting the required environmental flows.

      Thanks again for the comment and for paying attention to environmental flows. They are so important to the future of our rivers.

      March 13, 2019 at 10:36 am

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