The SB3 Environmental Flows Process

Water is the lifeblood of our Texas landscapes. Unfortunately, it is possible to take too much water out of a river or alter a river’s natural flows too much. Texas’ rapid population growth means the demands on our sources of freshwater—rivers and aquifers—will increase and put the health of our rivers and coastal bays at risk.

Partially due to the recognition that healthy rivers and productive bays are a substantial economic engine, Texas legislators understood there was a time-sensitive need for a state-wide process to set environmental flow protection standards for new water rights. In 2007, Article 1 of Senate Bill 3 was passed establishing just such a process.

The resulting Environmental Flows Allocation Process attempts to address three key issues:

  • how much water is needed (and when it is needed) to keep the state’s rivers and coastal estuaries healthy,
  • how much of that needed water, if available, should be protected as new water rights to withdraw water are issued, and,
  • if water needed for healthy rivers and estuaries is not currently available, how do we go about making it available so we can pass a healthy natural heritage along to future generations of Texans.

The law sets up a public process for soliciting consensus-based flow recommendations from scientists and stakeholders after which the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality then adopts formal environmental flow protection standards for each river and bay system.

In recognition of the unique nature of different Texas river basins, the legislation divides the state into eleven regions for that process. A staggered timeline was established by the legislation for each of the seven river basin areas that feed into Texas’ major coastal estuaries. A schedule is yet to be developed for the remaining basins.

How the Environmental Flows process works

The law creates a public process for soliciting input from scientists and stakeholders. Each area of the state has a Stakeholder Committee made up of people from diverse interest groups and an Expert Science Team, appointed by the Stakeholder Committee, made up solely of technical experts. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality considers recommendation reports from both groups and then adopts formal standards for each river and bay system.

Science Team Input

Each Bay/Basin Expert Science Team (BBEST) has a year to examine the available science and develop a recommended environmental flow regime adequate to support a sound ecological environment. The Expert Science Team is to use the best available science and its best professional judgment in creating their recommendations using a consensus based process. Read more about the Expert Science Teams.

Stakeholder Input

Each Bay/Basin Stakeholder Committee (BBASC)—also charged to work on a consensus basis—considers their Science Team’s recommended environmental flow regime, along with policy considerations, and develops their own set of recommendations about flow protection standards. The Stakeholder Committee is also to come up with methods, or “strategies,” to help meet the flow recommendations. For areas where sufficient unallocated water isn’t available, these strategies could include options such as incentives to improve water-use efficiency with saved water left in the stream, the dedication of treated wastewater to environmental flow purposes, or the purchase or donation of existing water rights. The Stakeholder Committee periodically reviews their analyses and recommendations in light of any new scientific information and is charged with developing a work plan to guide additional studies and the review of the committee’s recommendations.

TCEQ Rule Proposal and Adoption

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), through a public rulemaking process, has one year to use the Science Team and Stakeholder Committee recommendations, and other considerations, to adopt formal environmental flow standards. These flow standards are then applied when any new water use permits, or amendments that increase the amount of water to be diverted, are granted.

Advisory Committees and Groups

The Environmental Flows Advisory Group (EFAG) appoints members to all the Stakeholder Committees and the statewide Science Advisory Committee. In addition to interacting with these committees, this group may submit comments to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality about the various flows recommendations. The EFAG also sets the schedule for development of flow standards for additional basins for which SB 3 does not describe a schedule and approves work plans developed by stakeholder committees. The Environmental Flows Advisory Group is made up of three state senators, three state representatives, and one representative each from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and the Texas Water Development Board.

The Science Advisory Committee (SAC) helps provide overall direction, coordination, and consistent application of scientific principles throughout the Environmental Flows Allocation Process. Through a liaison member, they work with each Bay/Basin Expert Science Team. Appointed by the Environmental Flows Advisory Group, this is a nine-member committee.