Healthy rivers a priority for Texas May 2015

The health of our state's rivers affects the simple pleasures of many Texans. Fishing, tubing, and enjoying nature's beauty all rely on maintaining the complex ecosystems of our rivers. Not only do they harbor a variety of species and volumes of nutrients, but they support our economy through tourism, outdoor recreation, water supply, and many other industries. To ensure our rivers remain healthy, Texas has made studying and understanding their intricate ecosystems a priority.

In 2001, the Texas Legislature created the Texas Instream Flows Program. An instream flow (also called an environmental flow) is the water that flows through a river. The specific quality and volume of an instream flow is what makes rivers viable wildlife habitats as well as scenic recreational environments.

The legislature called on the TWDB to work in tandem with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to conduct a long-term, detailed study of the instream flows of several priority rivers in Texas. The three agencies were charged with answering two key questions through detailed study: What makes a healthy river, and how much water should flow in each river to ensure a healthy environment?

As the population of Texas grows, our water supply is being stretched by rising industrial, agricultural, and municipal needs. Understanding the specific and scientific needs of our rivers allows the state's regional water planning groups to accurately assess the availability of our water resources.

In 2007, the Texas Legislature expanded and accelerated the scope of the state's studies on instream flows by creating a second program, called the Environmental Flows Process, which is a scientific, stakeholder- and consensus-driven process to develop instream flow recommendations for all of the state's river basins. The same process is also making freshwater inflow recommendations for all of the state's estuaries. Stakeholder committees and science teams were established for each basin and estuary to address the questions of how much water is needed for a healthy environment and how to balance ecological and human needs.

The studies, research, and collaborative efforts of these environmental flows programs will help the state develop water management policies and strategies. It will also allow the state, through the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, to set flow standards for its rivers and estuaries.

The TWDB and its partner agencies have made substantial progress in both programs. Starting in 2005, the Texas Instream Flows Program began collecting baseline data for priority sub-basins. Three years later, in 2008, the design process for these basins began with input from basin stakeholder committees. Final reports on these studies are expected to be completed by December 2016.

For the more accelerated Environmental Flows Process, studies began in 2009 with the development of flow recommendations from stakeholders and scientists. By 2011, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality adopted flow standards for seven basin and bay areas including specific basins in Sabine Lake; Galveston Bay; the Brazos Estuary; Matagorda and Lavaca bays; Mission, Copano, Aransas, and San Antonio bays; Corpus Christi and Baffin bays; and the Rio Grande Estuary and Lower Laguna Madre. It is expected that 15 additional studies will be completed by August 2015.

With more than 191,000 miles of streams and 15 major river basins, Texas enjoys the economic benefits and natural beauty of healthy rivers throughout the state. The Texas Instream Flows Program and Environmental Flows Process will allow us to take care of our rivers so that Texans can experience the simple things in life for many years to come.

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