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Troubled Waters

When a River's in Trouble, Many Face Sacrifices

The Colorado River, which flows from West Texas all the way down to the Gulf Coast, is caught in a tug-of-war amid the West's prolonged drought.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
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Troubled Waters

Six years ago, state leaders launched an effort to better manage the health of Texas' rivers. But environmental advocates fear that ecology still takes a back seat as legislators fret about having enough water to sate Texas' fast-growing cities. Now, every Texas river is threatened by nearly unprecedented drought and the looming effects of climate change. Our series explores the history, health and future of some of Texas' most important and legendary rivers. More in this series 

As with nearly every beloved Texas river, the 600-mile Colorado River — which flows from West Texas to the Gulf Coast — is under serious threat. Drought and surging population growth have taken their toll on the water’s flow and its wildlife and, by extension, the farmers and fishermen who rely on it.

But there is one thing about the Colorado — not to be confused with the river of the same name that flows through the Grand Canyon — that makes it unique.

“Here’s the river that we decided to put the capital on,” said Kevin Anderson, who runs the Center for Environmental Research at the Austin Water Utility. “Austin must depend on its river for the water, and so it must respond to what the river is telling us.”

And with the dry conditions persisting, the booming city and seat of Texas’ Legislature is now facing a tug-of-war for water with agricultural, fishing and tourism interests farther downstream. While the city’s supply has so far remained intact, it is not guaranteed to stay that way.

Austin, now a city of more than 800,000 people, is projected to pass 1 million by 2025. It is almost entirely reliant on the Colorado River and its system of dammed reservoirs for water, managed by the Lower Colorado River Authority. But the two reservoirs that serve Austin and surrounding communities, Lakes Buchanan and Travis, currently have only about a third of the 655 billion gallons of water they can hold.

Greg Meszaros, director of the Austin Water Utility, told the City Council in October that the lakes could run dry in two to three years if the dry conditions continue; a more optimistic scenario would be five to six years. 

Later, Meszaros downplayed his doomsday forecast, saying a dry lake anytime soon is an “extremely unlikely scenario.”

“We still see the Colorado River as our primary source of water. It’s reliable,” he said. “We’re never going to face a situation where Austinites don’t have water.”

But Anderson is not so sure. “Ultimately, I don’t see how 4.4 million people are going to survive here,” he said of the projected population of Central Texas in the coming decades.

The fate of Texas’ capital is just one of many that are intertwined with the river. Coastal rice farmers have relied on releases from reservoirs now managed by the LCRA, known as the Highland Lakes, for more than a century. Fishermen in Matagorda Bay, the body of water connecting the river to the Gulf of Mexico, depend on freshwater inflows from the lakes to keep shrimp and oysters healthy. And state and local parks along the river generate recreational income and enjoyment for their surrounding communities — not to mention those who have made their homes and businesses along the sparkling lakes.

All of those dependents have suffered during the recent prolonged drought. In 2012, for the first time, the LCRA cut off water to many rice farmers, and they have not received any since. (Some farmers with senior water rights are still entitled to several billion gallons of water a year.) Matagorda Bay fishing has suffered greatly because of historically low deliveries of freshwater, and only recent rains prevented the agency from eliminating those, too. The drying-up lakes have forced restaurants to close and have led to such heavy plant growth in the river that it has been difficult to get accurate measurements of the flow using regular stream gauges.

Environmental advocates have argued that the LCRA should impose water restrictions on Austin residents before going after the rice farmers or Gulf Coast fishermen. On the other hand, some Texas politicians, including state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, think the rice farmers and Gulf Coast fishermen deserve even less water.

“The health and safety of the public overrides both industrial and environmental issues,” he said.

But Anderson cautions against seeing the Colorado as simply a battleground between rural and urban interests.

“I think it’s too simplistic to pit it as urban against rural, because a river is a unity,” he said. “The communities in between, and the people in between and the river in between have generally been overlooked.”

That portion is what Anderson focuses on — specifically, the 60-mile portion between Austin and the town of Bastrop farther downstream, where Spanish explorers formed one of the oldest European settlements in Texas at a strategic river crossing more than 200 years ago. Referred to by some as the Austin-Bastrop River Corridor, the segment begins when the river is “set free” from the system of dammed lakes that serves Austin and can meander downstream unimpeded. For decades, it has been nourished with freshwater flows released from those lakes to the benefit of rice crops, shrimp and oysters on the Texas coast. 

Now that the LCRA has all but eliminated these pulses, what has been a vibrant habitat for fish and vegetation in the river is now completely subject to rainfall.

“What we’re looking at now is more like what the early settlers saw,” Anderson said. “Really low flows, and then big floods and then low flows.”

At times this summer, one could cross the normally deep river at some points in Bastrop and only be soaked to the waist; in the wake of heavy rains, the flow has returned, but is sure to recede once again.

That has led to a mixed bag for the corridor. On the one hand, the hundreds of billions of gallons of freshwater flows that came down the river each year flushed out unwanted algae and other plant life that would suck up dissolved oxygen as the vegetation died, destroying what fish needed to survive.

On the other hand, some of the plant life that the freshwater flows used to flush away could be vital for some fish, whether as a source of oxygen before the vegetation dies off, or as a place for them to hide and lay their eggs. 

The real cause for concern could be what happens next year if the drought persists. The LCRA has warned that the Highland Lakes could be reduced to less than 30 percent of their capacity by February 2014, triggering new drought restrictions for water users. That could force the agency to go after flows to Matagorda Bay and take the unprecedented step of proposing to cut off other releases that its water management plan requires for threatened species and to maintain critical flows in the river.

“That will have pretty profound short-term impacts,” Anderson said. “If that persists over time, then the whole system starts changing.”

This story is part of the Texas Tribune's "Troubled Waters" series, examining the state of Texas' rivers. Find the rest of the stories and a map of the rivers in the series here

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