Protecting Our Bays and Estuaries – the water must flow

June 29th, 2006

Guest Blogger, Mary KellyTexas Water Matters

Generations of Texans have benefited from the state’s magnificent system of rivers and the productive bays and estuaries along the coast that are fed by the rivers. These rivers and bays are essential part of the lore and lure of our state, playing a central role in our natural heritage and the quality of life that attracts so many newcomers.

We’ve worked these rivers hard over the last century, damming them for water supply, flood control and hydropower and using them for transport and carrying away wastewater. Texans have also reaped great benefits from the productive commercial and recreational fisheries supported by the bays and estuaries, productivity that depends on regular influxes of freshwater. In short, our rivers and bays have helped make Texas one of the most productive and prosperous states in the country.

But now, as our population grows and water demand increases, we need to make sure that our rivers and streams remain vital and continue to support healthy populations of fish and wildlife, keep our bays and estuaries productive and continue to provide the recreational benefits that we all enjoy today. We can leave the next generation healthy rivers and bays, or we can leave them dried up river beds and a barren coast. It is our choice, and it’s a choice that has to be made now.

Fortunately, progress toward this goal is being made. Last year, there was broad support for a new system to help meet environmental flow needs, particularly in the eastern part of the state. Article 1 of Senate Bill 3 garnered support from many conservation groups and water suppliers. It passed the Senate and the House Natural Resources Committee, but was too far down the calendar in the last days of the session to get a vote by the full House.

Over the last few months, a new Environmental Flows Commission, appointed by Governor Perry, has been meeting and taking public testimony. It will make recommendations later this year. In mid-June, the Senate Natural Resources Committee, under its new Chair, Senator Kip Averitt, held its first hearing on environmental flows.

Support for the approach embodied in last session’s legislation remains strong, and it appears that flows legislation will be filed again next session. There is also widespread recognition that the state will need to find ways to buy or lease existing surface water rights and convert them to environmental flows, particularly in rivers for which all or most of the water was long ago permitted for consumptive use. Funding will also be needed to support the scientific process required to determine the appropriate environmental flow targets for healthy river and bay systems.

These investments by the state will provide long-term, sustained returns in the billions reaped each year from commercial and sport fishing, bird watching and river recreation. It’s a small price to pay to protect some of our state’s most valuable assets.