Water Rights and Wrongs

In Texas, a controversial plan to divert fresh water to thirsty cities could spell trouble for wildlife in Matagorda Bay

  • Joe Holley
  • Dec 01, 2001

ON A JANUARY DAY in 1685, a doughty French explorer named René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, led three ships and 300 soldiers and settlers into what appeared to be an opening along the upper coastline of the Gulf of Mexico. Having sailed across the Atlantic and into the Gulf, the 42-year-old Frenchman was poised to realize his decade-long dream: to build a French colony at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

But La Salle, who a few years earlier had become the first European to sail the length of the Mississippi, misread the landmarks of the Gulf and sailed past the mouth of the river. He wound up some 400 miles to the southwest, dropping anchor in the middle of a wide bay protected from tides and storms by barrier islands. Lining its shores was a vast area of marsh grasses with stalks so thick that Spanish explorers later named the bay Matagorda ("dense cane"). And feeding the bay and its estuary with fresh water was not the muddy Mississippi but rather Texas's own Colorado River, which flows for 900 miles within the state's borders, draining an area the size of Ohio.

Along with the fierce Karankawa Indians that inhabited the area, La Salle no doubt encountered a remarkable abundance and variety of wildlife in and around Matagorda Bay--everything from bobcats and dolphins to roseate spoonbills, brown pelicans and dozens of other bird species. Even today, the area's wetlands attract birds in huge numbers. Because its marshes lie at the terminus of the Central Flyway (one of four principal North American migratory routes), more than 250 species have been spotted along the bay, possibly more than any other place in North America. Matagorda's marine life is just as profuse. Sport and commercial fishermen haul millions of pounds of shrimp, oysters, snapper, crabs and flounder out of the bay each year.

"Matagorda Bay is the undiscovered jewel of the Texas coast," says Jim Blackburn, a Houston attorney who is producing a book on Texas bays. "Its marshes are as thick and lush and productive as any I've ever seen. They are true saltwater wetlands and they are gorgeous."

Beset by disease, internal strife and Karankawa raids, La Salle and his followers all perished before their colony could take hold. But if the ghost of the French explorer were to venture back into the Gulf of Mexico more than three centuries after his demise, Matagorda Bay would be one of the few places along the Texas shoreline he might still recognize. Unlike densely populated Galveston Bay, 100 miles northeast, and refinery-dominated Corpus Christi Bay, 50 miles south, the coastal plains embracing Matagorda are still predominantly rural. Wet, green rice fields and long, straight rows of cotton rim the bay rather than vacation condominiums and seaside resorts. Instead of having a city like Houston sprawling along its shores, the bay is home to a scattering of towns whose residents rely on its rich bounty for their livelihoods.

Despite its rural isolation, however, Matagorda Bay's future now lies in the hands of thirsty urban Texans from some of the nation's fastest growing metropolitan areas. San Antonio, for one, is situated within pipeline distance of the Colorado River. Like the more famous river with the same name that passes through the Grand Canyon, the Texas Colorado could be tapped under a new long-term plan to supply San Antonio with drinking water. If that plan is implemented, conservationists worry that the river may not have enough water to feed both the bay and the city. At stake: the health and productivity of Texas's largest bay, and the wildlife and people that depend upon it.

The Matagorda Bay water system, covering about 350 square miles, includes one of the largest estuaries on the Texas Gulf Coast. This murky area where fresh water from the river mixes with salt water from the bay nurtures a vast array of life. It is where marine larvae, spats, fingerlings and plankton incubate into adulthood. Its marshes, sea grass beds and tidal flats are nurseries for red drum, brown shrimp, blue crabs, southern flounder and speckled trout. Ninety-seven percent of the fish species in the Gulf depend on estuaries like this during some portion of their life cycle.

"Matagorda is our most important bay," says Jeff Noel, a commercial shrimper for the past 26 years. "It's absolutely critical to the shrimp industry. Without it, Texas is in serious trouble." His assertion is supported by a 1998 Texas A&M University study that estimated the economic impact of commercial and recreational fishing in Matagorda Bay at $63 million and $115 million per year, respectively.

PRECIOUS COMMODITY: Inland from Matagorda Bay, a bobcat quenches its thirst at a freshwater pool. Conservationists fear that a proposed state plan to divert large quantities of water from the Colorado River away from the bay to cities such as San Antonio could have severe repercussions for wildlife, especially during periods of prolonged drought.

Like other area residents, Noel worries that the bay cannot long sustain the many demands being placed on it--whether from shrimpers who push the limits on what they harvest or city dwellers who would use up the water of the Colorado River before it even gets to the bay. And in a state where "whiskey's for drinkin' and water's for fightin'," Noel has reason for concern.

Though parts of east Texas get ample rainfall, most of the state is semiarid and prone to drought. In the 1950s, during a seven-year drought that still haunts the memories of many older Texans, wells went dry, rivers slowed to a trickle and several towns and cities literally ran out of water. In the decades following that drought, Texas embarked on a massive dam-building effort, creating almost 100 new reservoirs in 38 years. But in its zeal to impound water as a hedge against dry spells, the state paid scant attention to its coastal ecosystems. The prevailing attitude of most water managers was that a drop of water that reached the Gulf was a drop wasted. The idea that bays and estuaries need certain amounts of fresh water flowing into them at certain times to stay productive was not recognized by Texas lawmakers until 1985.

When a severe drought in the mid-1990s threatened to be a 1950s redux, and demographers were forecasting that Texas would double its population by 2050, state legislators launched a new statewide water planning effort. Under a 1997 law, 16 regional groups are now crafting plans for meeting their water needs for the next 50 years. Those plans will soon be incorporated into a new State Water Plan, which will guide Texas investments in water development.

Intended to be a "bottom-up," locally driven effort, the new planning process has revived interest in just about every dam and diversion proposal ever to cross the minds of Texas engineers. Already, the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), which manages the flow of the waterway, has become one of the state's most ambitious water marketers. In recent years, LCRA has purchased Colorado River water rights entitling it to roughly 61 billion gallons of additional water per year (enough to fill Houston's Astrodome 119 times). With these newly acquired water rights and others, LCRA is proposing to send some 49 billion gallons per year about 170 miles overland to San Antonio, the nation's ninth largest urban area.

In times of drought, which are frequent in south Texas, agencies and individuals with the longest-standing water rights are the first to receive water. If there isn't enough water to go around, those parties with newer rights have to do without. Since the LCRA purchased rights granted to landowners in the early 1900s, it now has first call on a major portion of the Colorado's normal flows, and almost all the drought-period flows. It can take water from the river before any other water-rights holder, and before Matagorda Bay (which has no formal rights) gets the fresh water it needs.

San Antonio would pay nearly $1 billion for the pipeline and pumping facilities to divert water from near the mouth of the Colorado. In an attempt to make enough water available for all parties, the city's dollars would also fund conservation measures by rice farmers who divert large amounts of water from the lower reaches of the Colorado. LCRA spokesman John Williams maintains that the San Antonio plan will continue to supply the Matagorda Bay ecosystem with the freshwater inflows it needs.

Photo: © DAVID J. SAMS
CONSERVATIONISTS fear estuarine species such as this blue crab, which are crucial to Matagorda Bay's multimillion-dollar commercial and sport fishing industries, could be at risk if fresh water is diverted to Texas urban areas.

But environmentalists and many local residents have their doubts. "Texas bays are at the end of the line both geographically and legally," says Myron Hess, an attorney with NWF's Gulf States Natural Resource Center in Austin. "Under Texas's system of water rights, people and cities traditionally got what they wanted and the environment got what was left over. That might have worked when there wasn't such a great human demand. But now we run the risk of depleting the river and killing the bay," he says.

In the little community of Palacios, which bills itself as "the birding capital of the Texas Gulf Coast," Roberta Ripke of the local chamber of commerce is also worried. "We are at the end of the line, but we're at the end of the line where it's very, very important to keep the water flowing," she says. "The idea that somebody on higher land than I am can take the water and sell it to El Paso or San Antonio infuriates me," Ripke adds.

Logan Respess, a county extension agent who works with the Sea Grant program at Texas A&M University, thinks that this struggle between inland metropolitan areas and coastal ecosystems will persist. "A lot of cities in Texas are realizing that water is key to their growth," he says, "and it's hard to tell people you can't do this and you can't do that because the water has to get to the bay. We go to meetings in small towns in central Texas, and the residents say, ‘Well, we'll give the water to you when we're through with it.'"

Hess points out that an increasingly smaller portion of the water cities use is put back in the river, and that the quality of these "return flows" is lower than the original river water. "The bottom line is pretty simple: Fish and wildlife need water, just like we do," he says. "If we develop and manage human water supplies without figuring them into the equation, we're going to dry up our rivers and decimate our wildlife populations. Surely nobody really wants that. It's true that San Antonio needs water, but we have to find a way to meet both human and wildlife needs. If we don't, we'll lose something irreplaceable."

The possible depletion of the Colorado is of grave concern to Norman Johns, a water resources scientist with the National Wildlife Federation. Johns contends that if a severe drought similar to the one that ravaged Texas in the 1950s recurred, the diversion of water for the proposed San Antonio project would cripple Matagorda Bay's fish populations and other aquatic life. This would have serious repercussions for both the commercial and recreational fishing industries, as well as for tourism. "In the worst drought years, the project would reduce freshwater inflows to the bay to only about 50 percent of what scientists consider is necessary for the survival of the estuarine species," Johns says.

Though LCRA says the program would capture "flood flows," Johns points out that the proposed project relies on continuous pumping, not floodwater, to provide the water for San Antonio. "They'd be pumping water even during low-flow times," he says, "and the flow remaining in the river after the pumps are turned on would be barely a trickle."

To the south of Matagorda Bay, the once mighty Rio Grande provides a preview of what could happen to the Colorado if too much water is diverted upstream. With its flow depleted by dams and diversions, this no-longer-grand river recently dried up and died behind a sandbar without even reaching the Gulf of Mexico. "The Rio Grande," says Johns, "is sort of a canary in the coal mine for many of our Texas rivers, with the population growth and increased water demand we face. This should serve as a wake-up call for Texans."

Raymond Cox, for one, is already awake. "We don't get enough water as it is during dry years," says the 65-year-old veteran fishing guide, who's been harvesting fish out of Matagorda Bay since he was a youngster. "If they start pumping it to San Antone, that ain't no good. God made that bay, and he made that river to go in it. He didn't make it to go to San Antone."

NWF Takes Action 
Safeguarding Texas Living Waters

Texas's population will likely double to 40 million over the next 50 years, putting intense pressure on the state's surface and groundwater resources. NWF's Gulf States Natural Resource Center (GSNRC) is working to make sure that enough water remains both above and below ground to support fish and wildlife and their habitat. "If we stick to business as usual, building more dams and pipelines to supply human needs and ignoring the water needs of wildlife, we'll destroy something we can't put back," says Susan Kaderka, director of the GSNRC. Working with three state environmental groups, the GSNRC has launched a multiyear effort to increase public awareness about water issues and to help steer public policy toward a water-management system that balances human water needs with those of wildlife. For more information on NWF's efforts in Texas, see www.nwf.org/texaswaterforwildlife.

Joe Holley is "Insight" editor for the San Antonio Express-News.

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