With each issue, Trib+Water brings you an interview with experts on water-related issues. Here is this week's subject:
L'Oreal Stepney is the deputy director for the Office of Water, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Water: The TCEQ regulates surface water use in Texas, which must be a very difficult job. How does TCEQ try to balance the needs of all the competing municipal, industrial, agricultural, recreational and environmental interests for water?
L'Oreal Stepney: In Texas, we have water rights for all of those different interests — from municipal, industrial, agricultural and recreational uses. Water rights can include requirements, also, that water be left in the stream for the rivers of Texas and the bays of Texas.
We also follow Chapter 11 in the Texas Water Code for issuing permits and each request for water rights is evaluated considering the existing other permits in the basin that we’ve already permitted, and what water is available for appropriation. We use sophisticated models to determine the water availability throughout a basin. The permits contain requirements to ensure that the same water rights are protected for all those different categories that you named.
Trib+Water: There seems to be more and more interest in water reuse in Texas. Is it possible to allow water reuse and protect existing surface water rights at the same time?
Stepney: Yes. We are able to do that. The Texas Water Code provides the authority for our agency to issue reuse permits. The code requires us to consider the impact on existing water rights, and the environment, when issuing those reuse permits. So we can only issue reuse permits if these interests are protected. I should add that a reuse permit is when an entity wants to divert that water downstream for a different purpose.
Water rights is always an important topic for water in general in Texas. We’ve issued some fairly big water rights permits in the last year or so and it’s a priority for our agency. We ensure that if water is available, that we issue water rights permits that are protective of the environment. So in general, it’s always a big issue.
I’ll also add that reuse can take different forms. Sometimes people under our Waste Water Program will reuse their wastewater, so instead of discharging treated wastewater to the stream, they can reuse it on golf courses or make up water for industry.
So it can take on different forms depending on the type of program. In the context of water rights, water can be deposited into the stream and then picked up at a later point downstream.
Trib+Water: In Texas, surface water quality is protected by the state. In other states it is the U.S. EPA that performs this function. Does this mean that the EPA is not involved in Texas water issues?
Stepney: Well for water rights, permitting in Texas is under the sole authority of the state and we issue water rights permits without any EPA involvement. Now, with respect to other programs in our water permitting groups that we have at the agency, for example, for water quality permitting — that’s a delegated program from EPA where we issue wastewater discharge permits and we have an agreement with them that lays out certain universal permits that they will review.
So, they have an oversight role for that branch. We also have the primacy program for public drinking water, and wastewater, that EPA has an oversight function and they periodically review our program. However, we’ve had the drinking water program since 1977 and the wastewater discharge program since 1998.
Trib+Water: So what makes Texas different from the other states, and why isn’t the EPA as involved here?
Stepney: Well, they are with the two programs that I mentioned for wastewater discharges for the Texas Pollutant Discharges Elimination Systems Program as well as for drinking water, but we are the authority for those different programs.
We’ve demonstrated that we have the ability to run those federally delegated programs in Texas, and they do not have an oversight role with respect to water rights. The federal government doesn’t have any role in water quantity issues, only with respect to water quality. I don’t think we’re different from any other state in that respect.
Trib+Water: What is the status of setting minimum environmental flows for all Texas rivers and bays? Once these standards are set, will the environmental flows stakeholder committees disband?
Stepney: TCEQ has adopted environmental flow standards for all of the rivers and bay systems that are in the statute and the water code — and there’s a list of those. For the ones that are listed, there are four that weren’t included in the statute. But, other than that, we’ve done the rest of them in Texas.
Well, as far as the environmental flows process, local stakeholders groups with the help of their local science teams are developing work plans to collect additional scientific information, and the statute contemplates an adaptive management process. So they’ll be submitting that information to us. And the statute also talks about that once all the environmental flow standards have been created, then the groups will be abolished. Right now the groups are working on the work plans.
So where we are right now, the local groups are working on additional science and developing work plans so they can submit that to the commission for adaptive management purposes.