A Force of Nature

Canyon Lake

Water flows through a gorge created by the force of water raging below Canyon Lake during the record 2002 flood. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

A Force of Nature – Part One

San Antonio Current
December 4, 2003

Part 1 of the Current ‘s series on the Guadalupe River.

The Guadalupe River is one of Texas’ most important – and endangered – rivers. Thirsty cities want to tap it, speculators want to exploit it, and by doing so, they could destroy the Guadalupe and its nourishing power.

Groves of inexpressible beauty are found in this vicinity. The waters of the Guadalupe are clear, crystal and so abundant that it seemed almost incredible to us that its source arose so near. It makes a delightful grove for recreation.
– Father Isidro Felix Espinosa, 1716

The Guadalupe River springs to life in western Kerr County, where the rugged, rocky Hill Country fades into the Edwards Plateau. Emerging from cracks and fissures in the sun-bleached limestone, the river’s pale blue-green waters run swift and pure as it begins its 230-mile journey across the heart of Texas to the coastal plains, San Antonio Bay, and finally the Gulf of Mexico.

The first mention of the Guadalupe in modern literature came around 1528 when the Spanish explorer Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca tried to establish a colony near present-day Victoria. Held captive by Indians before walking across the state on his way to Mexico, de Vaca described a “river of nuts” in his writings, in recognition of the abundant pecan trees growing on its banks and in the river’s fertile bottoms. The river was formally named Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in honor of the patron saint of Mexico. Referred to today as both the “Gwad-ah-loopy” or the “Gwad-a-loop,” it is neither Texas’ longest or the biggest of the state’s 15 major rivers, but rather the most quintessentially Texan.

Links to the Current’s series on the Guadalupe River.

Part 1: A Force of Nature
The Guadalupe River is one of Texas’ most important – and endangered – rivers. Thirsty cities want to tap it, speculators want to exploit it, and by doing so, they could destroy the Guadalupe and its nourishing power.

Part 2: Down The Drain
The demands on Canyon Lake could render it useless, exacting a heavy environmental and economic toll.

Part 3: The Dead Zone
To meet Bexar County’s water demands, the GBRA is looking to Victoria County — at the risk of destroying ecosystems and livelihoods

Part 4: Fresh Water Fight
How 185 endangered whooping cranes are a key to Texas’ water policy

Within the Guadalupe basin are Texas’ most prestigious summer camps for boys and girls, which have shaped and formed nature experiences for several generations of the richest and most powerful people in the state.

The basin also holds the two biggest springs in the Southwest – one of which has been continuously occupied and used by humans for at least 12,000 years, although it is more famous as the former home of Ralph the Diving Pig

The Guadalupe is also Texas’ most heavily used riverfront, drawing millions of visitors to a 25-mile stretch for the simple pleasure of floating downstream in inner tubes and more exciting thrills of rafting and kayaking.

San Antonio’s most popular lake, America’s No. 1 water park, and the Whooping Crane, the tallest bird in North America and the most celebrated endangered species this side of the grizzly bear, all lie inside the watershed.

As the water turns muddier and the flow increases downstream to the point where its riverbanks are as much as a mile wide, the river provides sustenance for a multitude of farm crops, including a substantial pecan industry, for raising livestock in what is considered the Cradle of Texas Cattle Ranching, and for hunting, fishing, and shrimping, worth tens of millions of dollars every year.

The Guadalupe also provides sustenance to millions of Texans who depend on the river for drinking water and related municipal uses.

But for all those attributes and benefits – and in part because of them – the Guadalupe is also Texas’ most troubled river. In 2002, American Rivers, a non-profit conservation group, designated the Guadalupe one of the top 10 most endangered rivers in the United States. Coveted by thirsty cities, tenaciously held on to by farmers and ranchers, exploited for new, competing uses as the population booms, the river’s ability to sustain is no longer a given.

The Power of Water

The Guadalupe is ground zero in Texas’ 21st-century water wars, with practically every fight directly tied to satisfying the needs of San Antonio’s 1.5 million residents and the region’s determination to grow the economy and the population. Four areas in particular tell of tale how contentious the quest for water really is:

Kinney County, where groundwater from the unregulated western portion of the Edwards Aquifer has been targeted by at least four water marketing/water mining companies with extensive ties to the political leadership of the state.

Canyon Lake, where the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority (GBRA) has applied to take twice as much water out of the lake than is currently being used, and to siphon from other sources, primarily in the Guadalupe River basin;

Victoria, where the GBRA, San Antonio River Authority, and SAWS are proposing to build the longest water pipeline in Texas all the way back to San Antonio;

San Antonio Bay and the Guadalupe Delta, where the river meets the sea, and where the state has thwarted efforts to set a minimum flow of water to ensure the health of the coastal fisheries and wildlife.

The Guadalupe is an extremely tough river to tame. The one significant reservoir, Canyon Dam, is saddled with the impossible task of holding back floodwaters in a region known as Flashflood Alley, which registers the highest number of deaths due to flash floods in the United States and has recorded two 250-year flood events in the past five years. Even when the engineering works as intended – as did the spillway in July 2002 when lake water flowerd over the passage for the first time since the dam structures were erected in 1962 – more than $85 million in damage was done downstream. Without the dam, it would have been twice as bad. Still, the topography changes so dramatically that, often as not, by holding water behind the dam and regulating its flow, flooding lasts longer farther downstream.

More threatening is the combustible mix of historic laws, traditions, wasteful practices, a statewide and regional mandate for communities to secure sufficient water supplies through 2050, and a rapidly growing number of users and uses for the river whose collective demand already outstrips the existing supply.

“Whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting,” Mark Twain once observed. A century-and-a-half later, water has become the New Oil in Texas, a commodity meant to be moved and sold, always flowing toward money, made possible by a series of state laws passed since 1997 and an antiquated law that won’t go away.

That outmoded law is the Rule of Capture – the building block of Texas water law. Groundwater – water that lies under the ground – belongs to the owner of the property above it. In contrast, surface water, such as rivers, lakes, and bays, belong to the people of the state, a doctrine most Western states apply to both surface and groundwater. Texas is the sole Western state where Rule of Capture is still observed.

After regional infighting and several lawsuits, the Texas Legislature formed the Edwards Aquifer Authority and groundwater districts to monitor pumping as a way to prevent a property owner from draining his neighbor’s water. There are 87 conservation districts statewide, some of which have attempted to restrict water from being moved out of their jurisdiction. This prompted several bills to be filed during the 2003 legislative session that would have given the state the authority to overrule actions of local districts, negating the purpose of a district in the first place.

Beyond the boundaries of the Edwards Aquifer and local groundwater districts, pumping of groundwater has increased to the point where demand outstrips supply. Pumping in unregulated parts of Comal and Hays counties – in the Guadalupe Basin – has already exceeded sustainability, a process accelerated by an explosion of development including more than 20 golf courses built in the last 20 years, each consuming from 500,000 to 1 million gallons a day.

The Region L water district, which includes San Antonio and most of the Guadalupe River basin, has determined that for San Antonio to sustain its growth and prosper through 2050, it needs to secure 200,000 acre feet of water per year (an acre foot of water is 325,850 gallons). The planning group has set a deadline of 2010 to implement numerous strategies to satisfy municipal and industrial demands, including conservation and leasing irrigation water from farmers with Edwards Aquifer permits. That has prompted the San Antonio Water System (SAWS), the Bexar Metropolitan Water District, the San Antonio River Authority (SARA), the Guadalupe Blanco River Authority (GBRA), and private companies to look for more water.

Tully and Virginia Shahan

Second- and third-generation ranchers Tully Shahan and his mother Virginia Webb Shahan stand near a spring-fed stream on the family’s land in Kinney County.
(Photo by Mark Greenberg)

“The Guadalupe is where the rubber meets the road.”
– Bill West, general manager, Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority

When the Edwards Aquifer Authority was being formed in 1991, Zack Davis and Tully Shahan were among the handful of Kinney County officials petitioning the EAA to leave the county out of the authority’s jurisdiction. Only 16 percent of the aquifer lies under the county, amounting to 5,000 acre feet. The EAA obliged.

Thirteen years later, Tully Shahan, now the county attorney, wishes the EAA would have turned down the county officials’ request.

That is because the EAA’s decision to accommodate the request led Davis to seek out partners to help sell his groundwater. Landowners within the EAA’s jurisdiction are limited to selling and moving no more than 50 percent of the water they use; outside the EAA’s jurisdiction, such as in Kinney County, landowners can sell and move as much water as they want.

Shahan and his wife, Darlene, who is the general manager of the recently formed Kinney County Groundwater Conservation District, lead the local opposition to exporting water from the county. Without regulation, they contend, the county’s groundwater will be mined and moved to satisfy the thirsts of cities and towns elsewhere. Property owners, including Zach Davis, who are eager to lease or sell their water, will profit at the expense of everyone else, they say.

The Shahans have felt the effects of pumping groundwater. In 1963, a neighbor drilled two wells 300 yards from the Shahan ranch, producing 2,000 gallons of water per minute that irrigated onions and other produce on their neighbor’s property. “That same year, we lost six windmills and the use of 7,200 acres of land,” Tully Shahan recalls. “My dad had to move over and start drilling for more water. He had to drill 200 feet deeper. Those wells still produce water today.”

Kinney County’s water surplus, the decline of the local agricultural economy, and the county’s location beyond the EAA’s regulatory reach has made it an ideal target for groundwater marketers. At least four groups of speculators have acquired water rights in the county to mine, market, and move groundwater somewhere else, most likely to SAWS and Bexar Metropolitan Water District in San Antonio, and the cities of Eagle Pass and Laredo.

These are not just any players. Davis sought out some of the state’s biggest water industry people:

  • One consortium of investor partnerships, the Native Valley Cooperative, has extensive ties to Austin politicians, lobbyists, and real estate developers.
  • The chairman of the WaterTexas Corporation managing the alliance is former State Senator Buster Brown (D-Lake Jackson), who spearheaded the overhaul of Texas water laws that his company is now trying to exploit.
  • Another WaterTexas principal is Dan Pearson, the former executive director of the state’s environmental protection agency. He is now a lobbyist for HillCo Partners LLC, one of Austin’s most powerful lobby firms; another HillCo partner, Bill Miller, represents the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority.
  • Craig Pedersen, the ex-executive administrator of the Texas Water Development Board, is a consultant to WaterTexas.

The Edwards Aquifer links Kinney County with the headwaters of the Guadalupe River, some 50 miles northeast, and to Comal Springs in New Braunfels and San Marcos Springs in San Marcos, more than 125 miles east. The aquifer’s sustaining powers are visible driving west from San Antonio on U.S. Highway 90. On both sides of the road, fields of onions, corn, sorghum, oats, wheat, cabbage, spinach, cucumbers, and pickles flourish in the hot sun. They survive the heat thanks to irrigation pivots, mechanical contraptions resembling giant grasshoppers that draw water from several hundred feet below the topsoil. Despite the desiccated landscape, there is an abundance of good groundwater below, so much that in some places, such as Zach Davis’ spring, water requires no encouragement to gush up in an artesian flow.

But the fields where the crops grow need the pumps to move water in the large volumes needed. Without the pumps and the Edwards Aquifer, Kinney County would have virtually no economy and little reason to exist.

Five years ago, the Shahans attended a Rotary Club meeting where the chairman of the Region L Planning Committee, which includes San Antonio, was speaking.

“He said people wanted to sell water outside of the county,” Darlene Shahan says.

“Including our next door neighbor,” Tully Shahan adds. “We worried we’d lose water on our land because our neighbor wanted to sell. We started going to conferences of all kinds, even environmental meetings, trying to learn about what was going on. The more we learned, the more we realized we got a problem here and it’s countywide … One landowner I went to said he was told by Zach Davis not to worry if his springs dried up because he’d be so rich, he could live anywhere.”

Tim Brown, an attorney who represents 12 water districts, reportedly told the Shahans that forming a groundwater conservation district was the only way to protect themselves.

In 1949, the Texas Legislature gave local voters the option to create groundwater conservation districts as a tool to manage groundwater pumping without having to address the Rule of Capture. Groundwater districts continue to be promoted by the Texas Water Development Board as the “preferred means” to manage groundwater locally.

Tully Shahan began organizing to create a groundwater conservation district; State Representative Pete Gallego (D-Alpine) produced a bill for Kinney County. “But when it got to the Senate Natural Resources Committee they roughed us up,” Shahan says. “[State Senator Frank] Madla [D-San Antonio] was getting pressure from Eagle Pass. They already had contracts to mine water in Kinney County.”

Guadalupe River

The Guadalupe River makes its way towards the public boat ramps and an RV park under I-35 in New Braunfels. Communities along the river depend on tourism and water recreation as a sizable part of their local economy. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Gallego informed the Shahans the bill wouldn’t get out of committee until groundwater district proponents met with representatives of the lobbying firm, HillCo Partners. The county judge, two county commissioners, the whole Fort Clark Springs Municipal Utility District board, ranchers and farmers showed up to talk to Dan Pearson and Jay Howard of HillCo Partners. “They told us they wanted us to meet with their local representatives, Zachary Davis [who also sits on the board of the groundwater district] and Jim McDaniel,” Tully Shahan recalls. “McDaniel is a pure farmer. Davis is a veterinarian who owns the hardware store. Both have artesian wells on their land. Zach turns on his well and water flows out of the ground. Zach and Jim both said, ‘We don’t want anything.'”

But during legislative committee meetings, Tully Shahan claims Zach Davis told him, “You’re never going to able to function because we’ll tie you up with lawsuits and in court, and flood you with paperwork.”

Darlene Shahan says the groundwater district lacks the resources to respond. “The board members are volunteers. Our budget is less than $68,000. We’d like to be spending that on research, but because of HillCo and the legislature’s pressure on us, we’re spending most of that on attorneys’ fees fighting the lobbyists.”

Tully Shahan contends more studies are needed to determine if Kinney County can withstand extensive pumping. “No one knows what the impact will be if 200,000 acre feet is being pumped out of the county. It’s all driven by money of course. What’s going to happen when that flow isn’t there?”

Vic Hildebrand, general manager of the neighboring Uvalde Underground Conservation District, the only district in Texas regulating four aquifers, has been watching the fight next door. He thinks the Kinney County district has been unfairly picked on.

“My deal since day one is we can give up a certain amount of water and anyone who wants to participate in the game can make money on it – I’m all for making money – but I want to know what the results of pumping will be and what protections will be in place before I give out a permit. I want San Antonio to get water. But I don’t think they should be stifling my growth at my expense.”

Hildebrand sees two sticking points: One is the pipeline and who wants to run water through it, the other is the private-public arrangement.

“We’re just getting hammered because we’re a little district and we don’t have the resources to defend ourselves. I don’t know if our district is equipped to protect the water.”
– Darlene Shahan

“It’s the water purveyors who want to build it, not SAWS or anyone in San Antonio. The thinking is, when the pipe is built, SAWS will buy the water. That’s not how it’s done. When Disney built the park in Orlando, the first thing they did was buy all the real estate they’d ever need.

Then they announced they were building Disney World. That’s what SAWS is doing in Gonzales with the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer. They’re leasing water rights first before they build a pipeline. Second, why would they want to buy water from the purveyors when they can buy or lease the water rights themselves, and control the process from the ground to the faucet?”

Darlene Shahan thought the groundwater district was the right move for Kinney County. Now she’s not so sure. “We’re just getting hammered because we’re a little district and we don’t have the resources to defend ourselves. I don’t know if our district is equipped to protect the water,” she says with an audible sigh. “They’ve got a whole lot more money and a whole lot more influence than this little place will ever have.”

Groundwater districts, she says, are hamstrung by the Texas Legislature. “We’re prevented from treating farmers using irrigation for agriculture any differently from water exporters. If we permit a farmer five acre feet to irrigate, we can’t change the permit if he decides to sell that water to San Antonio.”

About the best the groundwater district can hope for, Darlene Shahan says, is for the Edwards Aquifer Authority to step in. “If there’s abuse, the Edwards Aquifer Authority says they’ll come in and do something about it. For me, having the EAA assist would be a blessing because we’re not financially equipped to fight the biggest water marketers in the state.”

That is unlikely because the Legislature has to approve any changes to the EAA.

Tully Shahan wants to believe landowners who want to sell their water and landowners who don’t want to sell can coexist peacefully in Kinney County. “We’re not opposed to selling water. We never have been. But let’s do it with controls where what’s taken out doesn’t exceed recharge,” he says. “We want to protect people who do want to farm here in the future. We have a rechargeable asset here that’s free. We should scale back to a level that’s rechargeable. That way, we’ll all be making money for years.”

Bob Wickman

“If we allow GBRA to destroy the Guadalupe and Canyon Lake, and all they mean for our economy, we’ll be just another dry, struggling Texas county,” says Bob Wickman, a member of the citizens’ group, Friends of Canyon Lake. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Down the Drain – Part Two

San Antonio Current
December 11, 2003

Part 2 of the Current’s series on the Guadalupe River.
The demands on Canyon Lake could render it useless, exacting a heavy environmental and economic toll

When Bob Wickman started to build his dream home, the 62-year-old retired Air Force colonel and his wife, Nancy McDonald, 56, an advertising executive, chose a hillside site overlooking the south shore of Canyon Lake. Thirty miles north of San Antonio, it was “one of the most picturesque places they had ever seen,” Wickman says.

Less than a year after the building project was finally finished, Wickman stood in front of the picture window with the million-dollar lake view, shaking his head with disgust. It wasn’t because the lake was a muddy brown mess following rains that dumped 20 inches in less than a week, submerging docks, blotting out the shoreline, and inundating roads. It was the prospect that in the coming years, there could be no lake at all.

Wickman and four other men gathered around the table – Everett Deschner, Bob Watts, Bob Carter, and Gorman Dorsey – are members of Friends of Canyon Lake, a group claiming a membership of 3,000 that represents homeowners’ interests around the lake. The group is engaged in a Texas death match with the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, the agency that manages the Guadalupe basin.

The GBRA has successfully applied to the state to take twice as much water from the lake as previously allowed and sell, treat, and deliver it. Potential buyers are municipalities, businesses, and developers including the cities of Bulverde, Fair Oaks Ranch, and Boerne in western Comal County; SAWS, Bexar Met, and SARA in San Antonio – much of it outside the GBRA’s 10-county jurisdiction. Other suitors are subdivisions and golf courses in unincorporated areas of Bexar, Comal, and Kendall counties including the controversial PGA Village resort; and booming Austin suburbs including Blanco, Buda, and Kyle, the latter of which was fined $160,000 last year for overdrawing 60 million gallons beyond their authorized pumping limits from the Barton Springs portion of the Edwards Aquifer.

While water from Canyon Lake would satisfy the demands of those growing communities and developments, Wickman and the other men think the GBRA can and will drain the lake for profit, regardless how that impacts people who live and rely on the lake. So they have challenged the GBRA – at hearings, in state court, and now in federal court.

“We’re being asked to sacrifice our future to accommodate the future growth of other communities, many of which are using golf courses to attract more residents and visitors,” Wickman said, the others nodding in agreement. “It’s as ridiculous as draining the San Antonio River Walk so Comal County can grow.”

While the men talked that morning in July 2002, water rushed over the spillway, just south of the dam, for the first time since the lake started to fill in 1964. The hydraulic torrent carved a deep gorge out of the rolling Hill Country landscape, doing 1,500 years’ worth of erosion in a matter of weeks. Horseshoe Falls directly below the dam disappeared. Farther downstream toward Gruene, through New Braunfels, and along Lake McQueeney toward Seguin, more than 400 homes were being flooded, causing more than $87 million in damage. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated damage to the Army’s parks, recreational facilities, and infrastructure alone was at least $12 million. Lake and river businesses would lose more than $1 million a day through the end of the season, according to the Water Oriented Recreation District that monitors business activity on the Guadalupe below the dam. Comal County lost $800,000 in sales tax revenues. Both the City of New Braunfels and Comal County were forced to make personnel cuts as a result of lost income.

The five men around Wickman’s table agreed that as bad as the flooding was, the pipeline could have more a long-term negative impact on the 34,000 people who live around the lake and the hundreds of businesses that serve them.

Since Canyon Lake was created, the GBRA has been allowed by permit to take an average of 50,000 acre-feet of water a year from the lake to service municipalities and businesses – about one-sixth of its capacity; although no more than 17,000 acre feet has been diverted in a single year. (An acre foot of water is about 325,850 gallons of water.)

The Power of Water

The Guadalupe is ground zero in Texas’ 21st-century water wars, with practically every fight directly tied to satisfying the needs of San Antonio’s 1.5 million residents and the region’s determination to grow the economy and the population. Four areas in particular tell of tale how contentious the quest for water really is:

Kinney County, where groundwater from the unregulated western portion of the Edwards Aquifer has been targeted by at least four water marketing/water mining companies with extensive ties to the political leadership of the state.

Canyon Lake, where the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority (GBRA) has applied to take twice as much water out of the lake than is currently being used, and to siphon from other sources, primarily in the Guadalupe River basin;

Victoria, where the GBRA, San Antonio River Authority, and SAWS are proposing to build the longest water pipeline in Texas all the way back to San Antonio;

San Antonio Bay and the Guadalupe Delta, where the river meets the sea, and where the state has thwarted efforts to set a minimum flow of water to ensure the health of the coastal fisheries and wildlife.

The Friends of Canyon Lake formed in response to the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality’s decision in 2001 to amend the GBRA’s permit and increase the allowable amount to an average 90,000 acre-feet annually and as much as 120,000 acre-feet in a given year.

The increase reflects the GBRA’s rising profile as a water purveyor competing with other river authorities, public entities, and private businesses to move water to where there is demand for it. With no budgetary support from the state or other government bodies, the GBRA depends on capturing, distributing, and selling surface water, which is theoretically owned by the people of Texas.

But not everyone is buying in. Although Friends of Canyon Lake have been consistently vocal, even supporters such as the Comal County Commissioners Court howled, as they did in August 2002 when the locations of the three pipeline intakes in the lake were announced. The lowest intake is to be sited at 810 feet above sea level, just 16 feet above the historic riverbed. “No water intakes should be allowed below 850 feet,” County Judge Danny Scheel told the Express-News last year. “It’s ridiculous. Just the thought of them sucking the lake down to the last drop blows my mind.”

Bill West, general manager of GBRA, has stated the water will be above the lowest intake level 97 percent of the time, or about three days a year. GBRA spokesperson Judy Garner said the lowest intake would be used in only a worst-case scenario.

“It is a slap in the face to let the public even think the GBRA would take this down to that low of a level, regardless,” Judge Scheel replied.

Former New Braunfels City Councilwoman Juliet Watson said the intake locations confirmed her initial suspicions: that profiteering is pushing these decisions. “There is going to be no lake if they have their way. It’s all about money and selling as much water as they can, while destroying the ecosystem, destroying the livelihoods of people at the lake and destroying the Guadalupe River.”

For close to 50 years, Canyon Dam worked as its builders, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, intended. Whenever flash floods broke out in the Hill Country, as they do more frequently and with more force than anywhere else in the United States, the dam held back excess waters, releasing the floodwater downstream in a kinder, gentler flow.

Built for the same purpose as other lakes in Texas – to hold back floodwaters and store water during dry spells, an almost a permanent condition in Central Texas – Canyon Dam unwittingly started the tourism industry that dominates Comal County. The dam formed Canyon Lake, the largest and most popular lake for recreation near San Antonio, and home to five marinas, seven parks, and two military recreational areas. According to the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, the lake logs more than 1 million recreational user visits per year.

Dennis Szewczyk

Comal County resident Dennis Szewczyk (center) comments on the issues during a recent town hall meeting near Canyon Lake. About 250 local concerned citizens attended the meeting held by the Friends of Canyon Lake to discuss the future of Canyon Lake and outline thier legal case against GBRA and TCEQ. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

The dam also transformed the 25 miles of river below it into the state’s most heavily used riverfront for recreation. Floating the Guadalupe in an inner tube is practically a Texas tradition, drawing as many as 200,000 visitors on summer holiday weekends. More than 4 million visits to the lake and the river below are recorded annually. And because the water comes off the bottom of the dam, it runs swift, clear, and cool enough at a constant 60 degrees to foster Texas’ only year-round trout fishery.

Lake and river users have consistently voiced concerns that the increased amount of withdrawals by the GBRA will also increase the frequency that the lake will dip below the 903 feet level deemed the minimum for recreational activities on the lake and the river below it. Only one time since the lake was impounded 40 years ago has the level dropped below 899 feet. Yet, by the GBRA’s own estimates, with the increased withdrawal, the lake will fall below that minimum level 10 percent of the time.

Unfortunately, recreation doesn’t count in Texas water politics. “Recreation is not an intended purpose of Canyon Reservoir,” Bill West has stated. According to the authority’s official terminology, Canyon Lake isn’t a lake, but a reservoir, its water meant to be sold and used.

Try telling that to the hundreds of businesses on the lake and river that rely on visitors to fuel Comal County’s economy. Or to the largest chapter of Trout Unlimited in the United States, which sued GBRA to guarantee a minimum flow for trout to survive in the river. Or to the Army Corps, for whom the lake generates more income than any Corps-managed park in Texas.

Friends of Canyon Lake have responded to the GBRA plan with a litany of charges:

  • Increasing the withdrawal of water from the lake will compromise water quality. Environmental engineers fear that GBRA will siphon the “sweet” water from more oxygenated level of the lake, Bob Wickman says, leaving lake residents with turbid, dead water.
  • The planned expansion of the Canyon Parks Estate Wastewater Treatment Plant, built and operated by the GBRA to service the Silverleaf “Hill Country Resort” timeshare apartment community which discharges treated sewage directly into the lake isn’t helping.
  • No thorough environmental impact studies were done prior to TCEQ’s approval of doubling the GBRA’s allowable limit from Canyon Lake, although GBRA did conduct a Canyon Reservoir Benefits Study – after the fact.

The approved amount of withdrawal violates the Texas Water Board’s original decision issued in 1958 that limited withdrawal to just 50,000 acre feet a year through 2008. Extra withdrawals could legally empty the reservoir. State courts respectfully disagreed. The local economy will be destroyed. The dollars don’t lie. Whatever amount of money generated by delivering more water to meet growing demand, serious consideration needs to be given to the economic losses suffered by area businesses during periods of low and no water. Bob Wickman uses the July 2002 flood as an analogy. George Cushanick, the Water Oriented Recreation District manager in Sattler, reportedly told Wickman that last summer about $1 million per week in business revenue was lost because flooding closed the lake and river. Wickman estimates the flood’s economic impact would be similar to that of lake/river closure due to low water.

Recreation is now a federally sanctioned activity, even if Canyon is a reservoir and not a lake, as GBRA insists. The National Recreation Lakes Act of 2001 passed by Congress to privatize recreational opportunities on public lands including Corps land on Canyon Lake, encourages industrial-strength recreation. Like power generation, irrigation, and yes, water sales, recreation is a beneficial use.

To gain political support of those same buyers in applying for the increase, GBRA was aggressively seeking water buyers before applying for the amended permit. By making token deals with SAWS and Bexar Met, GBRA was also trying to establish precedent to sell water out of its 10-county jurisdiction. The backroom negotiations may not be against the law, but they do speak volumes how done deals get done.

GBRA already mismanages the lake. It is in charge of allocating and releasing water that is above the 909 feet conservation pool. Below that level, the Army Corps of Engineers calls the shots. Criticism has echoed downstream all the way to the coast about how and when the GBRA releases water above 909 feet.

The GBRA responded with advertisements in local newspapers describing opponents of the deal as self-interested obstructionists.

In turn, the obstructionists presented the TCEQ petitions with 8,000 names. The Friends filed 59 allegations of administrative violations by GBRA and TCEQ. Twice, the TCEQ denied Friends of Canyon Lake a hearing. The Third Court of Appeals rebuffed the Friends’ appeal. Last January, the Texas Supreme Court refused to hear their case.

Water Tower

A water intake tower juts out of Canyon lake Dam. Due to a wet year, the lake level remains normal. Increasing water demands are threatening the lake. Some local residents fear the lake’s future is uncertain. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Now they’re taking it to the next level, hiring Houston water lawyer Jim Blackburn, who in August filed an attorneys’ request to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for an environmental impact statement. Turned down, Friends of Canyon Lake will take the case to court, and their lawyers are likely to dwell upon the potential collapse of real estate values and the school tax base if the GBRA renders the lake unusable.

Blackburn has a track record for stopping projects including the Dallas Floodway on the Trinity River and the Wallisville Reservoir. He is working farther downstream on the Guadalupe, representing interests opposed to GBRA pipeline project. He says the GBRA’s use of state laws to manipulate its draw is irrelevant since federal courts are hearing the case. “Canyon is a federal lake and subject to federal environmental laws,” Blackburn said. “That’s different than Texas law, and requires that certain procedures be followed. We have been hired to make sure that every step taken by GBRA complies with federal law. If it does not, we intend to sue.”

Attorneys’ fees were already in the hundreds of thousands to work through Texas’ courts and may soon reach $1 million. It is expensive to fight authorities and governmental oversight, but there is no choice, Wickman says. They have a stake in the lake, and the government isn’t going to take it away from them until it pries their cold, dead bodies out of it.

Bob Wickman compares the strategies employed by the GBRA, developers, attorneys, and politicians as straight from the script of the film Chinatown, with San Antonio in the role of Los Angeles, out to steal water and dry up the Guadalupe like LA did to the Owens Valley in the early 20th century. In this contemporary Texas scenario, like in old Southern Calfornia, the dealmakers are willing to do anything to get water, or so goes the implication. “GBRA will not be satisfied until they have obligated for processing and distribution every drop in the lake and river,” he says. “It is all revenue for them.”

For Wickman, it’s just his life.

John and Sue Gibbs

John and Sue Gibbs’ once-fertile ranchland is now under water much of the year, attracting alligators where grass once grew. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

The Dead Zone – Part Three

San Antonio Current
December 18, 2003

Part 3 of the Current’s series on the Guadalupe River.
To meet Bexar County’s water demands, the GBRA is looking to Victoria County – at the risk of destroying ecosystems and livelihoods.

John Gibbs stands by the special barge he built last year on his 1,000- acre ranch south of Victoria and grimaces. “I had to build this so I could feed my cattle,” he says in a soft, sullen voice.

With the barge, he explains, he could load four round bales of hay and motor down the temporary bayou to areas of his ranch where cattle were stranded. “I just worked my rear end off and wore out my knees trying to load into that boat.”

Gibbs’ 1,000-acre ranch lies below the confluence of the Guadalupe and San Antonio Rivers, about 25 miles from the mouth of San Antonio Bay. Until mid-June 2002, it was dry and lush with thick clumps of grasses, but for the next nine months, much of his land was under water. As Gibbs drove around his land in a pickup this summer, he surveyed the damage. The palmetto palms were thriving. So were Chinese tallow and willow. The oaks, some standing, some fallen, some as tall as 60 feet, weren’t doing so well.

“All this was big oaks,” Gibbs says, waving his arm all around. “They’re dead now. If they’re not dead, they’re dying. See the water marks on the fence post? We knew it’d flood. This is river bottom. But not for nine months.

“Bill West [of the Guadalupe Blanco River Authority] says it’s been this way for millions of years, but these big ol’ trees didn’t grow in the water.”

The Gibbs bought the ranch along the Guadalupe bottoms in 1989. He leased it for 15 years before that from the previous owner and ran cattle – long enough to see a slow degradation in the land. “This used to be farmland. But for the past 15 years it’s got worse and worse. In ’87 we were flooded for two months. In ’90, ’91 it’d been flooded for two months. In ’98 it was six months. This year was nine.”

Gibbs and his wife Sue, have been fighting the GBRA for more than a decade. With their neighbors, they have formed the Guadalupe-San Antonio River Valley Organization, petitioning local, state, and national authorities to hear their plight.

Gibbs remembers how it used to be. “Before dams were built, the main channel feeding Guadalupe Bay and San Antone Bay was what I call an estuary where crabs and shrimp get their start. Guadalupe Bay and Mission Lake was all estuary. Green Lake was the largest tidal lake in Texas, full of trout and redfish.”

A channel cut to divert freshwater to the Union Carbide plant and nearby farmers a half-century ago decimated the area’s ecology. “They stopped the flow so the natural river couldn’t clean itself out,” Gibbs says. “Now it’s depositing so much silt in Green Lake it doesn’t reach the saltwater anymore. It’s lost its productiveness. Very little nutrients and salts are getting into the delta.”

The perils of a pipeline

The GBRA’s solution is not one Gibbs is excited about accepting. “Bill West said, ‘If we can’t solve the problem, we’ll buy the land.’ Trouble is, we don’t want to sell the land. This was the best place in the world until they fouled it up.”

By the time the Guadalupe River reaches Victoria, its green-blue patina has turned a thick, viscous brown from 100 miles of blackland sediment. The river, broader and wider than upstream, is vital to the region, going back to the 19th century when Irish immigrants put down roots and started running cattle around Victoria, Goliad, Refugio and Cuero. O’Connors, Dunns, Fagans, McFaddins, and Welders, five and six generations down the line, still hold considerable sway in Victoria, thanks in no small part to significant deposits of gas and oil under that ranchland.

Water may be their next play.

South of Victoria, State Highway 239 cuts through the Fleming Prairie to link Goliad with Tivoli (or ‘Tie-voh-lah’ as the locals call it) near the lip of San Antonio Bay. Parts of the two-lane blacktop divide O’Connor land from Welder land.

At the center of the families’ disagreement is the Lower Guadalupe Water Supply Project, the centerpiece of the Region L water plan. The GBRA, with the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) and the San Antonio River Authority, wants to build a 127-mile pipeline from below the Guadalupe River’s confluence with the San Antonio River southeast of Victoria back to San Antonio and Bexar County. Beginning in 2011, the pipeline will deliver up to 289,000 acre feet of river water and groundwater a year, according to the GBRA, thereby reducing demand on the Edwards Aquifer.

The cost of the project is estimated at $785 million, considerably higher than the $475 million predicted two years ago. While the Guadalupe River would be the primary water source for the pipeline, groundwater would be used during droughts and/or low river flow. By 2050, if GBRA’s projections are accurate, the pipeline will no longer carry river and groundwater, but desalinated water from the Gulf of Mexico. J.F. Welder Heirs Ltd., which oversees the family’s business, has entered into agreements with the GBRA to lease 20,000 acres of land in Refugio County to sell groundwater to the GBRA and store water in reservoirs on their land. The arrangement would earn the family $4.5 million through 2012, according to planning documents.

But the O’Connors don’t want to sell their groundwater. Nor do they want their neighbors, such as the Welders, selling water, although in Texas, without a local groundwater conservation district to regulate pumping, landowners can sell as much as they want to whomever they want.

“What’s going to happen to our water wells?” asks D.M. O’Connor spokesman Bill Jones. “We’ve got hundreds of them. Are we going to have to drill deeper? It doesn’t seem right that a ranching family that means so much to the economy and environment of the region is going to have their water taken from under them.”

The Power of Water

The Guadalupe is ground zero in Texas’ 21st-century water wars, with practically every fight directly tied to satisfying the needs of San Antonio’s 1.5 million residents and the region’s determination to grow the economy and the population. Four areas in particular tell of tale how contentious the quest for water really is:

Kinney County, where groundwater from the unregulated western portion of the Edwards Aquifer has been targeted by at least four water marketing/water mining companies with extensive ties to the political leadership of the state.

Canyon Lake, where the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority (GBRA) has applied to take twice as much water out of the lake than is currently being used, and to siphon from other sources, primarily in the Guadalupe River basin;

Victoria, where the GBRA, San Antonio River Authority, and SAWS are proposing to build the longest water pipeline in Texas all the way back to San Antonio;

San Antonio Bay and the Guadalupe Delta, where the river meets the sea, and where the state has thwarted efforts to set a minimum flow of water to ensure the health of the coastal fisheries and wildlife.

It isn’t just the D.M. O’Connor interests, Jones says. “We realized this was far bigger than the ranches. It impacts the economy and the ecology. We started hearing from farmers and other ranchers. We’re hearing from all kinds of people.”

One bone of contention is just the amount of water the pipeline intends to take out of the area. When the proposal was first presented to the public, the project was scaled at 94,500 acre feet of water a year, Jones says. “All of a sudden, the permit application is for 289,000 acre feet. It’s very difficult to assess.”

[Bill West of the GBRA explained that the average take of river water would be around 30,000 acre feet a year; groundwater use would range from 14,000 to 40,000 acre feet. The 289,000 figure would be used only during the first year following a drought of record.]

“The GBRA says the pipeline will reduce San Antonio’s dependence on the Edwards Aquifer, and by doing that, Comal Springs and San Marcos Springs will have an increased flow, so there will be more water in the river downstream,” says Bill Jones. “We’ve questioned the rationale of this calculation. What happens in drought years? There’s no margin of error. It scares the hell out of us.”

The Welders’ water resource manager, James Dodson, a biologist at the Coastal Studies Program at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, calculates there is plenty of groundwater. Bill Jones understands the Welders’ position. “The Welders feel like they’re looking after the best interests of their family. We’re looking out for interests of our family and the region. If the project doesn’t work, Du Pont, Dow, everyone is in trouble.”

The O’Connors went public with their displeasure last January before the start of the 78th Texas Legislature, rolling out heavy public relations artillery at a press conference in Victoria. Representatives of the Coastal Conservation Association sportfishing group, the Independent Cattlemen’s Association of Texas, the Calhoun County Shrimper’s Association, and Mark Rose, the former executive director of the Lower Colorado River Authority (and Bill West’s boss before West left to run the GBRA) stood around Jones.

At the press conference, Rose said the true intent of GBRA, SAWS, and SARA was “to take as much water from the Victoria area as they can … unless the community unites to oppose this diversion application, this water will be taken away and never seen again in this part of Texas.”

West dismisses the opponents as “a handful of folks down there who want to stand in the way of millions of people who need water.” He chalks up the opposition to the pipeline to a combination of the property rights stigma, distrust of government including local groundwater districts, a dislike of San Antonio, the NIMBY syndrome (Not In My Backyard), and a generational split between younger people interested in their water rights and an old crowd that isn’t.

Jones vows to keep the pressure on.

“They’ll start building in four years,” Jones says. “We want them to slow down. It’s not what you can see. It’s what you can’t see. We’ve got some fuzzy math going on down here.”

Art Dohmann

Balancing the impact of exporting groundwater with the expense of desalinization concerns Art Dohmann, head of the Goliad Groundwater District. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Ecology, livelihoods threatened

On April 15, about 100 people, including Texas Congressman Ron Paul, filled the gallery of a federal district courtroom in downtown Victoria to discuss flooding in the Guadalupe delta, where the Guadalupe River meets the San Antonio River below Victoria on its last 50 miles to San Antonio Bay and the Gulf Coast.

The subject of the meeting, largely forgotten in the fuss over the GBRA’s pipeline proposal, was the GBRA’s stewardship of the river. It is an extremely important issue to the owners of more than 25,000 acres in Victoria County that have been flooded for nine straight months, rendering the property worthless. The long stretch of inundation is largely attributed to the record floods in 1998 and 2002, but anecdotal evidence indicates flooding has become more frequent over the past half-century.

Some pointed fingers to diversion dams and historic logjams in the river that have never been dislodged. The dams, initially built in the ’30s and ’40s to irrigate rice fields, are maintained by the GBRA and Texas Parks & Wildlife. Although rice farming is no longer sustainable without heavy federal subsidies, the dams continue to divert river water to a Union Carbide plant. Critics, including the landowners, contend the diversion not only causes more flooding upstream, but reduces freshwater flow into the river delta which functions as a critical aquatic nursery for coastal wildlife, shrimp and fish. The lack of fresh water is killing the bay and ruining livelihoods.

The GBRA’s Bill West observed the delta has been changing course and wandering for centuries, adding “And it will continue to meander for millions of years.”

The critics contended otherwise. If GBRA can’t steward this part of the river, why believe its promises about the pipeline, which sounds more like a pipe dream?

A broad range of water interests were represented among the 70 invitees to a closed session – landowners, seven of the nine GBRA directors, representatives from the Texas Water Development Board, Texas Commission for Environmental Quality, Texas Parks & Wildlife, county judges, shrimpers, the Army Corps of Engineers, and Ken Schustereit, the water activist who led the defeat of a groundwater district for Victoria.

“We realized this was far bigger than the ranches. It impacts the economy and the ecology. We started hearing from farmers and other ranchers. We’re hearing from all kinds of people.”
– Bill Jones

Using graphs and slides, Bill West presented a history of engineering and water flow on the lower part of the river, revealing an ugly truth: What often solves problems upstream exacerbates them downstream. This is a tough river to steward, especially above the delta. “It doesn’t take much of a flood event to have the river go out of its banks at several locations,” West explained.

John and Sue Gibbs were given time to make a presentation too. Sue Gibbs acknowledged the havoc that nature can wreak. “But we’ve reached a point where continuous flooding is no longer a natural occurrence. A nine-month flood is not a natural occurrence.”

The Gibbs’ once fertile cropland now attracts alligators. “Some of you have been told the land we live on is worthless swampland,” Gibbs said. “It’s beautiful land – far from being worthless and worthy of being saved.

“Our land should not line the pockets of those in the water business,” Gibbs added emphatically. “We should be able to use our private property. Those appointed to manage from the lake to the bay, their responsibilities do not stop at the saltwater barrier dam. Trees, some of them hundreds of years old, are dying because they’ve been under water so long.”

Wesley Blevins, representing shrimpers in Calhoun County, also spoke. “Water is going in the wrong direction,” he said. “San Antonio Bay is still fresh, and we don’t have a flood. Salinity on the west side of the bay is increasing. We need those places opened back up and the water getting back into all the right places. Millions of dollars have been destroyed because this is the most productive bay on the Texas coast. This bay is getting so messed up, you can’t hardly fish.”

Out of balance

“I’m the most hated man in Victoria County,” Ken Schustereit says by way of introduction. A big man with a beard dressed in blue work overalls and Coast Guard gimme cap, the 47-year-old Schustereit is leader of the Water Research Group in Victoria, an ad hoc organization that led the opposition against a groundwater district for Victoria in 2001, and has since allied itself with environmentalists and angry landowners against the pipeline project and the GBRA.

Critics, including the landowners, contend the diversion not only causes more flooding upstream, but reduces freshwater flow into the river delta which functions as a critical aquatic nursery for coastal wildlife, shrimp and fish.

He’s directing criticism where it is most needed, he says. “What I’ve tried to get across is the three prime movers in the Region L – San Antonio, GBRA, and SARA- all three have problems with ethics, administrations, and corruption.”

In his perfect world, Schustereit would like the diversion dams on the Guadalupe below Victoria to be removed, the logjams unjammed, and have the GRBA audited and revamped. “Water is power, economic development, so San Antonio can grow beyond the capacity of its natural resource. Downstream it’s no different,” Schustereit says. “Why sell water out of Lavaca County, the number two cattle producing county in the state of Texas and risk killing cattle production to promote the growth of San Antonio? If you dry up Lavaca County, who’s going to feed you?”

If nothing else, his complaints are having an impact. A June meeting of the Water Research Group attracted 375 people including State Senator Ken Armbrister, a Democrat from Victoria. Armbrister told the gathering that the pipeline is not a done deal, and proposed Schustereit be added to a committee studying the pipeline, which has been done.

Despite Armbrister’s overtures, Schustereit remains unmoved. “When you and I were in the second grade, we were taught that occasional flooding of river valleys left nutrients that made the soil more productive. River bottom property in my grandfather’s day made a man rich. River bottom property in this basin today is a curse. Farm and ranch land has been turned into a boggy marsh. Our wetlands are being artificially expanded to drive people off their property. A lot of property owners here are flooded half the year all the way to Victoria. This is the resource that the GBRA and SARA are supposed to be stewarding.”

Ken Schustereit

“I’m the most hated man in Victoria County,” says Ken Schustereit, who has led the opposition against a groundwater district in his area. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

The growing demand

The head of the Goliad Groundwater District, part of Region L that spans 21 counties from Calhoun to Uvalde, sits in his home office, fishing neatly arranged folders out of his desk. Art Dohmann, his face still flush from doing chores outdoors, his thinning gray hair matted to his pate, peers through his aviator glasses at a note he pulls out of his western shirt, then refers to a folder. It’s a chart of population projections for Region L, 21 counties in South Central Texas the state has designated for water planning purposes. According to the chart, in 2000, 2 million people are living within Region L. By 2050, that number is expected to double.

“How are we going to service this?” Dohmann asks, shaking the paper. “I recognize and support a 50-year plan. Unfortunately, every time we turn around, something comes up that doesn’t square with this population projection.”

Dohmann says that desalinization of Gulf Coast water has been proposed to meet water needs upstream. The technology exists, but desalinization is expensive.

“Groundwater here is more available and it’s relatively cheap. It’s two-thirds the cost of desal water. But the impact of drawing water from here over 50 years – what is the cost of that to the economy of the region, to the tax base, and the economy of the whole state?”

The Texas Water Development Board has rejected the Goliad Groundwater District’s population projections and its desire to reduce the amount of water exported out of the county. Schustereit cites the board’s action as proof that local districts, the state’s touted method of governing groundwater in lieu of addressing the antiquated Rule of Capture, really don’t have final authority in how their water is used.

“It’s been phenomenal what’s happened in the last 10 years and we expect it to continue. The key is, this water allowance. If we’re not careful and this county continues to grow, we’ve got to have the ability to support that economic development. We talk about a 50-year plan, but so many things that happen, we’re looking at today.

“People say, ‘We’ve got plenty of water, why are you trying to restrict what we can sell?’

“Well, we’ve got to make sure we’ll have water to accommodate growth for the next 30 or 40 years,” Dohman says. “We need to be very prudent to take care of today and tomorrow.”

Wesley Blevins

Shrimper, seafood purveyor, and water activist Wesley Blevins holds up a large Gulf white shrimp at his seafood shop, Chucky Monkey’s in Seadrift. Some shrimp on the Gulf Coast are being found with a condition called black gill. While not harmful, the condition is thought to be caused by stress and too little freshwater in the bays. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Fresh Water Fight- Part Four

San Antonio Current
December 24, 2003

Part 4 of the Current’s series on the Guadalupe River.
How 185 endangered whooping cranes are a key to Texas’ water policy.

“What was it that started limiting pumping of the Edwards Aquifer up by San Antonio?” Tom Stehn asks one morning, pausing briefly while unpacking boxes in his new office in the basement of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge headquarters.

“It was the Endangered Species Act,” Stehn says, answering his own question. “The Hill Country had to realize they couldn’t pump forever. I’m afraid it’s the same down here. In the end, the Endangered Species Act will determine how much is pumped here. You hate to force it with the Endangered Species Act. That’s not the issue. The issue is sharing a limited resource, and limited is the key.”

Stehn knows the issue well. As the United States Fish & Wildlife Service’s Whooping Crane Coordinator, his primary task is setting policy that will get the Whooping Crane off the endangered list. And from where he sits, state water laws are obstructing that goal. If Texas legislators won’t tackle the hard issues, he says with a reluctant sigh, the God Squad, i.e. the Endangered Species Act, will step in.

Of all the water battles being fought in the Guadalupe River basin, the least understood and easiest to explain is the one over freshwater inflow to bays and estuaries. Simply put: No freshwater means no shrimp, no redfish, no seafood, no sport or commercial fishing.

Bays need freshwater to make all that happen.

And of all the competing special interests in these fights, it is 185 part-time residents who winter over in Texas who may be the biggest players of all. Their presence – or disappearance – could crumble the cornerstone of the Region L water plan for South Central Texas, as well as other related projects to move water from the Guadalupe to where it is needed most.

The 185 are the world’s only wild flock of Whooping Cranes, the tallest birds in North America and Texas’ most celebrated endangered species who rank with California condors, Florida manatees, grizzly bears, and peregrine falcons as national symbols of conservation and mankind’s successful efforts to save wildlife from extinction. Having rebounded from a population of 15 in 1941, these snow-white big birds with black wing tips are the most famous residents of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge near Austwell, about 30 miles north of Rockport. As such, they are the most formidable foes water hustlers face.

A lanky 54-year-old with a full beard, Stehn works with a Canadian counterpart to monitor the 185 cranes who fly 2,400 miles every spring to spend their summers in the Northwest Territories, 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle before migrating back south to the Coastal Bend every October.

On the Texas coast, the cranes’ meal of choice is blue crab, which thrive in the state’s bays and estuaries. Stehn has observed the link. “When blue crab’s not available, there are other foods to eat, but they’re not as nutritious. The cranes lose energy reserves, making the migration more difficult, their mortality rate increases, and birth rates drop in Canada in the summer. If we’re going to maintain the population we need to do everything to maintain the blue crab population, and blue crab does better when there’s fresh water inflow and sediments. When there’s a drought, the blue crab population crashes. When there are less blue crabs, the species declines towards extinction.”

Although the Whooper population increased 4 percent during the 1990s, the numbers have been dropping since 2000. There are other factors leading to their demise, including collisions with power lines, but blue crabs and are key, Stehn says.

The ball is in Texas’ courts. “They’re trying to get water for the next 50 years, but they don’t realize how limited the supply really is. It’s the old rhetoric of putting a bird ahead of people. I say people want the Whooping Cranes to survive and thrive. I say let’s manage the resource so we can take care of both. I don’t know how else to answer that. Ecotourism should be looked at as another economy. But it’s not. We’ve got $5 million a year coming into Rockport from tourists who want to see Whooping Cranes.”

Three years ago, the San Marcos River Foundation applied for water rights to 1.15 million acre feet for conservation and ecology – the minimum for a healthy San Antonio Bay, according to studies conducted by Texas Parks & Wildlife Department studies. But the GBRA, municipal water companies, and other water industry interests opposed the foundation’s application, which was backed by more than 15 other organizations.

The San Marcos River Foundation is a 200-member organization that formed 18 years ago to advocate for the San Marcos River, which joins the Guadalupe near Gonzales. If the application has been granted, their water right to guarantee instream flow would be placed in the Texas Water Trust to be administered by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.

The Power of Water

The Guadalupe is ground zero in Texas’ 21st-century water wars, with practically every fight directly tied to satisfying the needs of San Antonio’s 1.5 million residents and the region’s determination to grow the economy and the population. Four areas in particular tell of tale how contentious the quest for water really is:

Kinney County, where groundwater from the unregulated western portion of the Edwards Aquifer has been targeted by at least four water marketing/water mining companies with extensive ties to the political leadership of the state.

Canyon Lake, where the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority (GBRA) has applied to take twice as much water out of the lake than is currently being used, and to siphon from other sources, primarily in the Guadalupe River basin;

Victoria, where the GBRA, San Antonio River Authority, and SAWS are proposing to build the longest water pipeline in Texas all the way back to San Antonio;

San Antonio Bay and the Guadalupe Delta, where the river meets the sea, and where the state has thwarted efforts to set a minimum flow of water to ensure the health of the coastal fisheries and wildlife.

At the urging of several municipalities, water industry groups, and authorities including the GBRA, which subsequently applied for all other unappropriated water rights in the Guadalupe basin, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst successfully persuaded the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality to dismiss the application, arguing the state was the proper authority to set freshwater inflow minimums.

Bill West, who is on Dewhurst’s new committe studying the issue, says the minimum inflow determined by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department was arbitrary. “The health and well-being of the bays and estuaries is just as important as the health and well being of Comal Springs and San Marcos Springs,” West says. “From a pure hydrologic standpoint, Comal and San Marcos Springs and the freshwater in-flow to the bays and estuaries is basically one and the same. That’s the importance of this regional plan, to try to see that the Comal/San Marcos Springs continues. The inability to see that spells the destruction of the bays and estuaries. So for those people that say we’re not concerned with bays and estuaries, that is the very inherent target of the whole regional plan.”

Diane Wassenich, the gray-haired former restaurant owner who is president of SMRF, was upbeat despite the setback. “We got farther than we ever dreamed,” she says. If nothing else, the issue was brought into public view.

“The Legislature spent millions over 35 years to study this. Now, no one wants to believe it. We’ve appropriated all our water and even over appropriated our water. We don’t want to face that. We have got to figure out how to make sure our rivers will continue to flow. And there is nothing in place.”

A dollar value of San Antonio Bay has been pegged at $55 million a year by Texas Parks & Wildlife. Robert Costanza, director and founder of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont, and cofounder of the International Society for Ecological Economics, calculates the value of an estuary to be $11,000 an acre per year. Using those values, the bay that the Guadalupe flows into is worth $2 billion annually in productivity.

Any reduction of freshwater coming into the bay has considerable economic impact, which refutes the common belief that any water that reaches the bay without being used is wasted.

GBRA, SAWS, and SARA are trying to address those concerns with two studies that they will oversee. GBRA has commissioned R. Douglas Slack of Texas A&M to conduct a five-year, $1.3 million study to determine the relationships between freshwater inflow, blue crabs, and Whooping Cranes, while SARA has commissioned George Ward of the University of Texas a five year, $1.5 million study of San Antonio Bay inflow in order to evaluate the biological productivity of the bays and the estuary to determine the freshwater requirements necessary to support their ecosystems.

Diane Wassenich

Diane Wassenich (center), executive director of the San Marcos River Foundation stands on the bank of the San Marcos River with current and former members of the foundation’s board of directors. From left: Jack Fairchild, Alan Groeger, Ann Allen, Theresa Kosary, Tom Wassenich, and John Tolbert. The 200-member SMRF was formed almost two decades ago to advocate for the San Antonio River. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

That gives Tom Stehn hope the God Squad won’t be called in.

“We’d like to see environmental considerations done at an early stage. One of the problems with the Texas Water Plan is the environment got short shrift. I bet there weren’t a lot of biologists being talked to. Now they’ll have to prove their case that the project won’t impact endangered species.

“Our political system has a tough time dealing with issues 50 years down the road,” Stehn adds. “We’ve never set aside, much less acknowledged environmental flow. If factories were taking oxygen out of the air, we’d regulate them. This is the same. When you look at the cost of water, you need to look at the real cost, what it takes to maintain the ecology. The crane’s role in this scenario is more than just something for birdwatchers to look at.”

A year ago in November, Greg Rothe, general manager of the San Antonio River Authority, General Eugene Habiger, the president and CEO of the San Antonio Water System, and Bill West, the general manager of the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, extolled the virtues of the Lower Guadalupe Water Supply Project in a press release announcing environmental impact studies of a pipeline project from the Gulf Coast to Bexar County.

Habiger praised the studies: “The actions this week signal the start of one of the most significant water resource projects approved for this region,” he said. “We are going to do the right thing with this project. We all recognize that we all need to view future water needs on a regional basis because we are all linked environmentally, economically and socially.”

Public declarations like the above tout regional cooperation and forward-thinking planning so that San Antonio and South Central Texas can grow and prosper over the next 50 years.

This month’s trip down the Guadalupe River showed a very different take on the planning process from the other end of the faucet, voiced by folks not ready to say goodbye to their river.

Somewhere between the two opposing points of view lies reality.

Regardless of the mandates and the responses, a significant number of players have been left out of the process. At the same time, the barn door has been left wide open to make it easy for those who write the laws, carry them out, and lobby the lawmakers for profit.

If Texas legislators won’t tackle the hard issues, the God Squad, i.e. the Endangered Species Act, will step in.

Lawyers and lobbyists have better access to the ears of lawmakers than the average citizen – while fishing, shrimping, recreational interests, and the Whooping Crane have been underrepresented at the bargaining table or eliminated altogether. There’s a distinct sense the planning process will continue to be dominated by people who want to treat water like a commodity.

If the people of Texas want sound statewide water policy, a good place to start would be a more stringent code of ethics for state legislators. Our lawmakers must be held to a higher standard than the current one that allows former State Senator Buster Brown to profit from the laws he wrote.

Local government bodies such as groundwater conservation districts should be given the final say on local matters, not the legislature. And if there’s local consensus that moving water for a profit will benefit a community, let it flow.

Extend the Edwards’ Aquifer Authority’s reach into Kinney County, which only the legislature can do. If water is moved out of the area, the EAA is a conscientious overseer.

While agriculture has historically been the biggest user of groundwater in Kinney County and elsewhere in Texas, farming shouldn’t be abandoned altogether in favor of water mining. Uncommon produce such as ugli fruit, wine grapes, and other specialty crops including lavender and organic versions of conventional vegetables fetch considerably higher prices at the market. A little creativity might preserve the tradition while benefitting local consumers.

If there’s a need to mine water, Kinney County landowners and San Antonio water users would be better served if property owners leased or sold their water rights directly to SAWS or Bexar Met to gain control of the flow from source to faucets. The current legal setup encourages the same kind of exploitation at any cost that occurred when private energy companies such as Enron, Reliant, Duke Energy, and Williams conspired to manipulate prices and gouge California consumers.

If the market system remains the preferred means of conducting water business, quantify lakes and rivers for their recreational value as well as their water storage value before sacrificing them. Put a number on being the primary nursery for fish, shrimp, oysters, crabs, and hundreds of species of marine, shore, and land life residing in the bay and the Gulf.

Tom Stehn

Tom Stehn, Whooping Crane coordinator for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, follows a flock of birds with his binoculars while standing in a marsh on the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Stehn is concerned about changes to freshwater quality and flow into the coastal bays and its effects on the delicate ecosystems. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Consider restructuring how river authorities operate. Currently, the governor appoints the directors of Texas’ river authorities. Typically, they are people in leadership positions in their respective communities. But appointments are too often made based on political patronage than water expertise, which leads to boards rubber-stamping management.

Electing directors instead of appointing them would improve relations with the electorate. The GBRA could also make it clear when projects are announced that buyers on the other end of the pipe must cut consumption during drought periods just as lake and river users must, golf courses included.

There’s a price for appropriating more water than exists, and it’s already being felt in the Guadalupe basin. “Texas has the best knowledge and understanding of its basins, rivers, bays, and estuaries, better than any state,” says Andrew Sansom, the former executive director of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. “The data is there. The problem is translating the known science into policy, especially in the Texas Legislature, where policy is currently dominated by lobbyists representing special interests. No one speaks up for the Whooping Crane, the small landowner.”

San Antonio and El Paso, two of the state’s most water-short cities, are Texas’ most conservation-oriented cities when it comes to water. The future of the Guadalupe River, Canyon Lake, San Antonio Bay, and how Texas deals with water can be glimpsed on the Chihuahuan Desert where the city of El Paso and the sister city of Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico have formed a metropolis of more than 2 million people in a valley between two dry mountain ranges. El Paso has the strictest water conservation measures in place in Texas. St. Augustine grass is discouraged and outright banned in some instances, city water cops scan curbs for signs of runoff, issuing fines to violators.

“The problem is translating the known science into policy, especially in the Texas Legislature, where policy is currently dominated by lobbyists representing special interests. No one speaks up for the Whooping Crane, the small landowner.”
– Andrew Sansom

In other words, El Paso is even more water short than San Antonio. It too is looking to pipelines and water mining to make ends meet. But El Paso has also already stepped into the future with a $67 million plant that will be the largest inland desalination project in the United States when it goes online in late 2005. Several pilot desalination projects are being planned on the Texas coast, prompted by Governor Rick Perry’s proposal to use tax-free investment bonds to finance local plants. The cost of desal water, $1.75 per thousand gallons, is higher than water piped from the Guadalupe or groundwater well fields, but isn’t saddled with hidden secondary costs such as loss of tax base or residual impacts such as leases, construction cost overruns, and legal expenses that are part of the cost of obtaining river and groundwater.

Similarly, Region L planners would be wise to budget several million dollars to offer real incentives for rural homeowners to get off wells and convert to rainwater catchment systems. The expense of such systems, which are common on water-scarce Caribbean islands, presently runs as high as $20,000-30,000 per home. The upside is homes equipped with catchment systems reduces demand on existing water supplies as well as prompts each household to be more responsible for their water use. In that respect, catchment systems do away with what amounts to water welfare.

A larger philosophical question begs to be addressed as well. Water as the New Oil may sound good in theory, but ignores the fact water is a resource that belongs to every person in Texas. Water is life. Two years ago, a high-ranking state bureaucrat mentioned Enron lobbyists had a significant hand in writing water legislation in the 1997, 1999, and 2001 legislative sessions, back when the now-bankrupt company was eyeing water markets as a lucrative revenue stream.

Water deserves to be treated more honestly, fairly, equitably and ethically than that. A good start would be the Texas Supreme Court or the Texas Legislature eliminating rule of capture.

As laudable as the planning process has been, those left out need to be included. “This Region L spent more money on public input and public meetings than any region in the state,” Bill West says. Still, West admits Calhoun County, where shrimping is a major industry, had no representation on the region planning board. Nor did Canyon Lake interests. Deal them in. Aquaculture and recreation count, no matter what anyone says.

Regional planning suggests regional cooperation. Instead, local groups are fighting the state, the river authority, and private water purveyors, and fighting each other. Victoria folks wonder why San Antonio needs their water when Canyon Lake is so much closer and has all that excess capacity that has caused flooding downstream. Friends of Canyon Lake representatives suggest there’s enough groundwater in Kinney County to meet San Antonio’s needs for decades.

Everyone will have to give up a little. Who is going to give up a lot remains to be seen. “The Guadalupe system is the system that’s going to force all these issues to come to a head,” says water attorney Jim Blackwood. “The data is there. If the state chooses to ignore that data, someone will have to get hurt before the public wakes up. That someone is likely to be in the Guadalupe basin. San Antonio’s had a heck of a deal up until now. I understand why its citizens are loathe to pay as much as they’re going to have to pay. They didn’t give the rest of us any rebates when they had all that free water.”

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