New TCEQ Rules Fall Short of Protecting Texas’ Rivers and Bays

"The action by the TCEQ Commissioners unnecessarily invites yet another round of contentious endangered species issues under federal law."

02-14-2014 // Lacey McCormick

coastal Louisiana

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) Commissioners voted Wednesday to set environmental flow standards for the Brazos, Nueces, and Rio Grande basins and bay areas that fail to adequately protect these rivers and associated estuaries. By placing limits on new water rights permits and setting targets for efforts to improve flows, flow standards are intended to ensure sufficient water remains flowing in our rivers and into our bays and estuaries to maintain water quality and sustain fish and wildlife populations.

"The action by the TCEQ Commissioners unnecessarily invites yet another round of contentious endangered species issues under federal law, said Tyson Broad, Research Associate with the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. The upper reaches of the Brazos River watershed are the last remaining habitat for two fish species—the sharpnose shiner and the smalleye shiner—proposed for listing as endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "TCEQ had the opportunity to adopt rules that would have gone a long way toward protecting these two species, but unfortunately chose not to do so."

For more than two years, diverse groups of stakeholders have worked alongside teams of scientists to develop environmental flow recommendations that provide adequate water to support fish and wildlife while allowing for reasonable opportunities to develop future water supplies. The recommendations are forwarded to TCEQ which is charged with adopting rules to establish environmental flow standards. These stakeholders included representatives of municipalities, river authorities, commercial fisheries, agricultural interests, industries, regional water planning and others. This process was established by Senate Bill 3 that was passed by the Texas Legislature in 2007 to create environmental flow standards for each of Texas’s major river basins and bays.

"Finding a reasonable balance between the water needs to sustain fish and wildlife populations and the need for new water supplies is a critical challenge,” said Jennifer Ellis, Senior Project Coordinator with the National Wildlife Federation. In August of 2012, the Nueces Basin and Bay Area Stakeholder Committee submitted a set of unanimous environmental flow recommendations to TCEQ. “The Nueces Basin and Bay Area stakeholders recommended flow standards designed to prevent further degradation of the already ecologically unsound conditions of Nueces Bay. Unfortunately, TCEQ has chosen to dilute these recommendations, leaving Nueces Bay, and those who depend on its fish and wildlife for their livelihood, with an uncertain future," added Ellis.

Senate Bill 3 directs TCEQ to adopt rules that ‘are adequate to support a sound ecological environment, to the maximum extent reasonable considering other public interests and other relevant factors.' Myron Hess, an attorney and Manager of Texas Water Programs for the National Wildlife Federation, noted "because the new TCEQ rules aren’t adequate to protect a sound ecological environment, particularly in Nueces Bay, TCEQ is required to provide adequate justification for its decision that these critical aspects of the natural heritage of all Texans should not be protected. The agency didn’t do that and, in fact, the decision isn’t justifiable."

Hess also commented, "The Rio Grande presents special challenges because the available water is already spoken for. However, the Commissioners had the chance to establish targets for voluntary actions to restore flows. In 2001 and 2002, flows dropped so low that the Rio Grande didn’t reach the Gulf of Mexico. We need to do better by our rivers and estuaries because future generations of Texans deserve to inherit healthy rivers and estuaries."

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