Include the needs of Texas wildlife in water plans

Photo by Eddie Seal

In a recent editorial and news stories, Texas Rep. Lyle Larson, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, has called for a variety of measures that he feels will prepare Texas for the inevitable — another calamitous drought. 

Recalling the devastation wrought by the drought of 2011, Larson begins his editorial saying that, “If we fail to plan, we’re planning to fail.”

We couldn’t agree more. Our state and regional planning processes include projected water needs for cities, industry, agriculture, and mining — but not for wildlife. Failing to plan to provide enough water to protect springs, rivers and coastal bays is planning to fail the kids of Texas. Prior generations of Texans passed along a bounty of natural treasures to us and it would be simply unthinkable and un-Texan if we did not do the same for our children.

Failing to add the water needs of fish and wildlife to the water planning calculus puts Texas at a real risk of relying too heavily on water supply options that cause serious damage. Rep. Larson laments water flowing into the Gulf of Mexico “with no beneficial use.” This echoes previous statements by him, and others, referring to fresh water flowing into the Gulf as a “waste.” The truth is, as Rep. Larson knows and has acknowledged at other times, Texas’ incredibly productive estuaries and bays depend on the essential fresh water that flows into them. Our recreational, commercial fishing and tourism industries along the coast would not exist without healthy Texas bays.

If we develop water plans that leave out the water needed to keep wildlife healthy, we would be wrongly suggesting that Texans have to sacrifice the natural wonders we inherited. That short-sighted approach is not right for Texas and creates the risk of building water projects that are unnecessarily damaging and will have to be fixed later. Instead, let’s focus on using water more efficiently now and on identifying supply strategies that take care of people and wildlife.

To his credit, Rep. Larson’s unfortunate reference to fresh water flowing into the Gulf being wasted was embedded in a comment about capturing high flows through a technology that is little-used in Texas, underground aquifer storage and recovery (ASR). ASR systems offer a promising alternative to the creation of new surface reservoirs, which lose tremendous amounts of water to evaporation.

Still, while ASR systems generally are superior to reservoir construction, they should only be entertained when and where there really is surplus water above and beyond the amounts needed to keep rivers and bays healthy. We have the science needed to identify the amount of available surplus, but before we can use these findings to inform planning, the state’s current environmental flow standards must be updated to reflect that science. And, to make up for existing water projects built without regard for the needs of wildlife, we should dedicate some of that captured water to our rivers and bays to ensure the survival of wildlife in times of drought.

We applaud Rep. Larson’s focus on preparation, planning and technological advancements; there is much work to be done to ensure that Texas’ fast-growing population will have the water it needs, which includes providing sufficient water for wildlife. We are blessed to live in a state filled with natural treasures.  The waters that flow from our springs to our creeks and rivers and to our bays are the lifeblood of that treasure.  We must protect these places and their contribution to the Texas economy.

We look forward to working with Rep. Larson and others to encourage a balanced approach to Texas water management. Together, we can develop new supply strategies for a growing population that also protect springs, rivers, and bays.

Texas is a can-do state and if we plan comprehensively now and act accordingly, we can ensure that our kids will enjoy Texas’ rich natural heritage and a thriving economy.

Myron Hess

Water programs manager, National Wildlife Federation

Tom Spencer

Program director, National Wildlife Federation