Critical Decisions Ahead for the Future of Texas Water Resources

For the past two years it seems as if the environmental news in Texas has been dominated by concern about the air pollution problems confronting our state. The air pollution situation in Texas is indeed a crisis, and attention to improving air quality has been key to the more aggressive anti-pollution measures being developed to address the issue. No less important than the air quality issue, however, is the future of Texas water resources both in terms of quantity and quality.

The water issue is about to take center stage. This fall, the regional water planning process affecting Texans will, in the next 50 years, reach an important milestone, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will review recent revisions made by the State of Texas to its surface water quality standards. The Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club will focus considerable attention and resources this fall and beyond on monitoring and participating in the decisions about water quality standards and regional and state water supply needs (including environmental needs).

What follows is an overview and timeline for these critical water resources decisions and information on how citizens may participate in the process.


Regional Water Planning Reaches Critical Stage

Public Review Period for Draft Regional Plans Begins

The regional water planning process that began in 1998 as a result of the passage of Senate Bill 1 by the Texas Legislature has reached a critical stage. Draft regional water plans developed by water planning groups in each of 16 regions created by the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) have been or will be released for public review and comment during August and September. A schedule for the review of each regional plan is available on the Lone Star Chapter website (click here to see schedule) or from the Sierra Club State Conservation Office in Austin.

Following the close of the public comment period, the draft plans will be submitted to TWDB by October 1 for review. Submission of the final plans to TWDB is required by January 5, 2001. The regional plans will be aggregated by TWDB into a state plan during 2001, with TWDB resolving any conflicts between or among regional plans.

Citizens Urged to Participate

The Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club is urging citizens in all regions of the state to review and provide input on the draft regional plans. The regional plans and the state water plan, once finalized, are intended to be the blueprints for meeting the water resource needs of the state for the next 50 years, a period of enormous projected growth in the state's population.

Depending upon whether these plans promote development of water supplies or, more appropriately, wise management and conservation of water supplies, these plans could have a dramatic impact on the environment and natural resources of the state. Granted there will be many additional opportunities during attempts to implement these plans for people to shape the final outcome (agency permit hearings, project funding decisions, water rate structure decisions, environmental reviews of projects, etc.). But the regional plans will set the tone for the water decisions that follow. Concerned citizens need to have a strong presence in promoting environmental considerations at this critical stage.

For More Information

TWDB has extensive information about S.B. 1 regional water planning on its website www.twdb.state.tx.us. The TWDB staff also has contacts for each region identified on the TWDB website. Check with the respective TWDB staff person for availability of draft regional water plans for review.

For information to help you evaluate the regional plans, check the Lone Star Chapter website  or contact Sheril Smith, Chapter Water Resources Chair at sherilsmith@ev1.net , 512-273-1188 or the Sierra Club State Conservation Office at scls@igc.org or 512-477-1729.


Revised Water Quality Standards Under Review by EPA

Environmentalists and Anglers Ask EPA to Overrule State Water Quality Downgrades

The Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, other Texas environmental organizations and angler groups are calling upon the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to overturn the July 26 decision by the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) to weaken water quality protection for a number of Texas water bodies, including Sam Rayburn Reservoir, a major bass fishery in East Texas. If allowed by the EPA, the Commission's action would allow Donohue Industries Paper Mill to discharge significantly more pollution into a tributary of the Angelina River, which flows into Lake Sam Rayburn.

The TNRCC decision came when the commissioners formally approved revisions to state water quality standards, which dictate how much pollution can be discharged into all lakes, rivers, streams and coastal waters. As well as Lake Sam Rayburn, the Commission approved water quality downgrades for a portion of the Nueces River near Corpus Christi, the Pease River in West Texas and dozens of smaller streams throughout East Texas.

The environmental and sporting groups praised the Commission for making some positive changes in the standards, in particular for adopting new protections for aquatic habitat, coastal seagrasses and wetlands. According to Mary Ruth Holder with the Texas Committee on Natural Resources, "the addition of provisions to protect habitat is a signficant step. Common sense tells us that good water quality requires more than just certain water chemistry conditions. Now the standards reflect that common sense by providing express protection for the vegetation and habitat that fish and other aquatic life require to survive."

Concern about Lake Sam Rayburn

But anglers and environmentalists took special exception to the lowering of standards for Lake Sam Rayburn. "Lake Sam Rayburn is a world class fishing lake," said Ed Parten, president of Texas Black Bass Unlimited. "It generates tens of millions of dollars in economic activity every year and it's a source of pride for Texas bass fishermen. We can't keep putting more and more pollution into the lake and expect the fish to survive. The TNRCC caved in; now it's up to the EPA to hold the line."

"It's frustrating to see TNRCC take this major step backward on Lake Sam Rayburn at the same time they adopted some improvements to the overall water quality standards," said Ken Kramer of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. "Improvements to the basic standards don't do much good if the agency keeps lowering protection for individual segments."

The TNRCC decision to lower the standard for Sam Rayburn from what is called "high aquatic life use" to "intermediate aquatic life use" is based on data supposedly showing that it "naturally" does not meet the high standard to which it has been held. But environmentalists, anglers and others have questioned this data, most of which came from a study commissioned by Donohue Industries, the very company that would benefit from the downgrade.

Final Decision in EPA's Hands

Following Commission approval, the revisions to the state water quality standards must go to the EPA Region 6 office in Dallas for review. In 1996, in response to a massive outpouring of communications from environmentalists and anglers, the EPA overturned an attempt by TNRCC to lower protection for hundreds of small perennial streams throughout East Texas. "Over the next couple of months, we will be working hard to show the EPA that these downgrades are unjustified and that they are unacceptable to the majority of Texans, who believe that we can't have a healthy economy without a healthy environment," said Sparky Anderson with Clean Water Action.

To Express Your Opinion about Water Quality Downgrades

The EPA will have at least a 60 day period, primarily October and November, to review the revised standards and approve or reject them. Texans who want to protect water quality are urged to send a letter opposing the downgrade of water quality standards for Lake Sam Rayburn and other bodies of water in the state to the EPA official who will ultimately decide whether to approve or disapprove TNRCC's proposed downgrades. The address to express your opinion is:

Mr. Gregg Cooke

Region 6 Administrator

U. S. Environmental Protection Agency

1445 Ross Avenue, Suite 1200

Dallas, TX 75202-2733

For more information

For more information about the water quality downgrades check the Lone Star Chapter website  or call the Sierra Club State Conservation Office at 512-477-1729. Another organization opposing the downgrades is the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). NWF may be reached in Austin at 512-476-9805.