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Saving the Rivers of Texas

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Water is an ever increasing necessity in a fast growing state such as Texas and preserving the water in our rivers to everyone's satisfaction is an incredibly difficult task. Especially during this time of drought there is constant friction between agriculture who believe they deserve the water for their farms and ranches and the environmentalists who know that an adequate amount of water is needed to preserve crucial habitats.

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Because Texas, and most other western states, allocate water through a system of prior appropriation, the private land owners have most of the water rights in the state and, therefore, the upper hand in how that water is utilized. The land owners upstream can draw as much water from the river as they are allotted so that users downstream and crucial bays and estuaries at the mouth of the river are limited in the amount of water they receive.

As the drought continues, this conflict becomes even more crucial. To this end, the Sierra Club is sponsoring a series of three webinars titled 'Keep Our Rivers Flowing', under the auspices of the Texas Living Waters organization to present and discuss possible solutions to this dilemma. The second in this series took place on Thursday, May 29th with the emphasis on innovative strategies that promote and encourage cooperation between the land owners and various environmental entities to the benefit of each.

The first speaker during webinar was Russell Schnitzer who is the Agricultural Policy Advisor for Trout Unlimited. This organization has pioneered many projects, mostly in Wyoming and Idaho, that involve cooperation between ranchers and those protecting the fish and other environments.

One example is the installation of a fish screen on a river that does not interfere with ranch water availability but keeps the fish in the river where they belong. Another approach is to assist land owners with increasing irrigation efficiency or stock tank storage thereby freeing the saved water for other uses. The most important factor in these partnerships is to earn the trust of the land owners and create good working relationships.

The second speaker was Mary Kelly, owner of Parula LLC, an environmental consulting and advocacy firm. Ms. Kelly spoke to the role of market transactions and emphasized the importance of collaboration between partners. Transactions can be voluntary between the sellers (agriculture, water rights owners) and buyers (government, non-profits) or they can be regulatory such as when the Endangered Species Act is involved.

Water rights should be considered a marketable quantity and in the state of Texas market transactions are quite easy since the owner has the right to change instream flow or add instream use to an existing right without a permitting requirement.

The third speaker was Myron Hess of the National Wildlife Federation. He spoke about the difficulties of acquiring water for environmental use in Texas due to the fact that perpetual water rights in the state provide little if any excess for the environment.

The Texas Water Trust is an entity created in 1997 that is perpetually under the radar. At present, the Trust only contains three water rights, two of which include the Rio Grande and San Marcos Rivers. The main reason for the ineffectiveness of this program is a lack of funding. Without funding, there is little to no outreach and no promotion.

What can be done to improve the situation? Mr. Hess had several suggestions:

  • Better, broader appreciation of the problem
  • Active facilitator and advocate
  • Adequate funding and demonstrated precedents
  • Senior water rights that are more reliable

In summary, each of the speakers provided possible solutions that would be appropriate for consideration in Texas. This is an issue that will undoubtedly get worse in the future and we need to begin addressing it seriously right now!

If you would like to become involved, the Texas House Committee on Natural Resources will be meeting at the capitol at 10 am on June 25th in room E2.010. The public is welcome. You can also follow the 'Texas Water Solutions' blog on the website for Texas Living Waters. The third and final webinar in this series will take place on June 25th and more information can be found on the same website.

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