Texas authority votes to cut off water to state's second-largest estuary

Once again, it's upstream users versus downstream users in southeast Texas as a record-breaking, five-year drought forces authorities to make tough decisions about who gets access to dwindling water supplies -- and who doesn't.

This time, it's Texas' second-largest estuary, Matagorda Bay, that is facing a cutoff of freshwater flows from the region's two artificial reservoirs.

Matagorda Bay is a 350-square-mile body of water on Texas' southeast coast, separated from the Gulf of Mexico by a thin peninsula. Many environmental groups are concerned that the proposed elimination of freshwater flows from the Lower Colorado River could cause a dangerous increase of salinity levels, killing the juvenile oysters, shrimp and fish that live there.

They also argue that the reservoirs' upstream users, including the city of Austin, should be forced to give up watering lawns before one of Matagorda Bay's most important sources of fresh water is curtailed.

"I definitely acknowledge that we're in a really bad drought," said Jennifer Walker, water resources coordinator with the Sierra Club's Lone Star Chapter, "but I don't think that the bay should be sacrificed before we do something to really curb water use."

'Slowly starved to death'

During a tense meeting Sept. 18, the Lower Colorado River Authority, which is responsible for meting out water supplies from the reservoirs, voted 9-6 to request a temporary suspension of releases to Matagorda Bay. This decision will not be carried out until it is approved by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which will review the request in late October.

When the salt content of the estuary gets too high, Walker explained, the juvenile shrimp, oysters and fish that develop there can no longer survive. The maximum salinity level needed to maintain the health of a marshy, 7,500-acre refuge area at the base of the Colorado River -- where the bay's species are now waiting out the drought -- is less than 25 parts per thousand, she said.


But a September document by the LCRA states that the drought has already caused salinity levels to rise over 30 parts per thousand, making "much of the habitat in the bay ... no longer suitable for many species -- particularly oysters, crabs and juvenile fish."

It's not just environmental advocates who are worried. Buddy Treybig, a commercial fisherman based in Matagorda County, owns two shrimp markets and an oyster processing plant that earn him about $3 million a year. Treybig also employs about 90 workers, he said.

Treybig is deeply concerned that the cutoff could run him out of business, although he says fishing conditions have been going downhill for years.

"Our estuaries here in Texas have been gradually, slowly starved to death because the cities have been taking more and more water," Treybig said. "Over the last few years, we're having to go further and further offshore to find shrimp, which means we're already not producing. If they cut this off, then it's completely done."

Spicewood Beach trucks in water

The reservoirs, called the Highland Lakes, are currently at only 33 percent combined capacity, holding about 660,057 acre-feet of water. More than 1 million people in central Texas depend on these reservoirs for drinking water.

If water levels go below 600,000 acre-feet, the LCRA will require many of the region's cities and industries to curtail 20 percent of their water use from a base-line year.

Some upstream communities that depend on the LCRA for water are already experiencing severe cutbacks.

At last week's meeting, Burnet County Judge Donna Klaeger reminded the LCRA board that a small town in her jurisdiction, Spicewood Beach, has been under Stage 4 drought conditions since January, when the community's LCRA-managed wells failed. Spicewood Beach is about 40 miles from Austin and is located almost halfway between what is left of the Highland Lakes.

According to Klaeger, the authority has trucked in water to meet the community's needs since December 2011.

"This is not 'if' we have an emergency; we're in an emergency," Klaeger told ClimateWire. "We're in a disaster."

Others counter that cutting off water to Matagorda Bay will just initiate a new disaster downstream and say the LCRA should re-evaluate what it considers "essential" water use.

Austin waters its lawns

At the LCRA board meeting, representatives from environmental groups frequently brought up the argument that cities should disallow watering lawns before the last habitat refuge in the Matagorda Bay disappears.

"Cutting off the life support flows for Matagorda Bay without requiring serious cutbacks on lawn watering is not fair or consistent with state laws," Myron Hess, manager of Texas water programs for the National Wildlife Federation, said in a statement after the LCRA voted in favor of suspending flows.

Austin, one of the LCRA's largest customers, is under Stage 2 water restrictions, which still allow residences, businesses and schools to water lawns on certain days and hours.

LCRA spokeswoman Clara Tuma said municipalities like Austin are responsible for setting their own water restrictions at this point, but she added that "as the drought intensifies, there could be additional measures enacted."

"It's too early to say if that will happen or what that might entail," Tuma said in a later email when asked what the possible measures might be.

Some members of the LCRA board of directors are concerned that the potential requirement to release an additional 5,834 acre-feet of water to the estuary by the end of the year will put undue strain on dwindling supplies.

"The health of the bays and the estuaries is very, very important," Timothy Timmerman, chairman of the LCRA board of directors, acknowledged at last week's meeting. "However, I think it's time to act."

Tougher decisions just ahead

"Letting 5,800 acre-feet downstream I don't think is going to make that huge of a difference down there in the bays and estuaries," Timmerman added. "It will make some difference, but on the scale of where we are today, it's going to make a whole lot more difference in the Highland Lakes."

Klaeger agrees: "Let's start talking about when we will be out of water," she told the LCRA board during the Sept. 18 meeting. "If we don't have drinking water, people will not come to Texas to live, they will not bring their business here, and people will start moving from Texas."

Since the decision was made to cut off flows to Matagorda Bay, some rain did fall on southeastern Texas, making it less likely the LCRA will impose restrictions on cities and industries by October, the situation the board feared at the meeting. However, it wasn't nearly enough rain to save the estuary.

Beyond the immediate environmental impacts surrounding the water cutoff to the estuary, Matagorda County Judge Nate McDonald said the decision had "huge implications" for other estuaries in the state.

"We're in the state's pre-eminent drainage, the Colorado River Basin, so we've got all the other river authorities looking at us for direction," McDonald said. "If our regulatory agencies go down this path, they've set a path for destruction for all of the river basins and bays and estuary systems for the state of Texas."