Drought conditions threaten water supply in Brazoria, Galveston counties


For the past two summers, the ongoing drought in Texas has been drying up the Brazos River and threatening water supplies in the area of Brazoria and Galveston counties.

Local activists formed the Lower Brazos River Coalition in late January to represent water users in the lower region of the Brazos River Basin—which includes Brazoria, Fort Bend and Galveston counties—as resources are expected to become even more scarce. Brazoria County Judge Matt Sebesta, who chairs the coalition, said recreational use of water upstream—where the river extends into Central Texas—should be considered a low priority when needs are not met elsewhere, such as downstream in the lower region of the Brazos.

"For the last two years, our agriculture producers have not received water unless they were senior holders," Sebesta said. "Some of the water set aside for recreational use upstream would be more beneficial downstream."

The Gulf Coast Water Authority—the agency that represents water users in Brazoria, Fort Bend and Galveston counties—had to cut off water to 15,000 acres of rice crops in summer 2013. The alternative was cutting off water to residents, GCWA General Manager Ivan Langford said.

"We are not in danger of having to cut off water to cities anytime soon, but the Brazos water has many uses," he said. "It's the lifeblood of agriculture, business and industry."

In response to declining water levels, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality started work on the Brazos Watermaster Program in April 2014 to monitor use and enforce water rights for the rights holders in the area. Water rights are recognized at the state level and can be granted to individuals, cities, utility districts and businesses.

The commission plans to launch the program June 1, according to TCEQ spokeswoman Lisa Wheeler. Officials are in the process of training staff and compiling a database of rights holders along the river.

In the meantime, climatologists project water levels will continue to diminish in the coming decades as water demand along the Brazos is expected to triple by 2060. Crop acreage is expected to be reduced again this summer, but Langford said he hopes he will not have to go lower than 4,500 acres.

Watermaster program

After establishing its Brazos Watermaster Program in response to record-low river levels, the TCEQ appointed Molly Mohler to serve as watermaster in January. Mohler formerly served as a water specialist with the Concho River Watermaster Program.

A 15-person Brazos Watermaster Advisory Committee was appointed by TCEQ in March and will take effect May 10, Wheeler said. Members include representatives from the GCWA and the Brazos River Authority.

The watermaster's coverage area starts at Possum Kingdom Lake in Palo Pinto County and extends south along the Brazos.

In June, Mohler and her team will begin monitoring and enforcing water rights for the 900 rights holders along this tract. The watermaster will also monitor surface water use on a day-to-day basis.

Water rights will be enforced on the basis of seniority, TCEQ officials said. As the oldest water rights holder on the Brazos, the GCWA will have priority in times of scarcity. Water rights for junior holders could potentially be suspended, except for municipalities and power plants, which are exempt.

Grass-roots effort

The main stem of the Brazos has 19 major reservoirs, and river flow is controlled by three dams. Proposals from the state to build more reservoirs to service the expected population growth have become more controversial as water in the lower Brazos dries up.

Support for the LBRC has grown since it formed in January.

"It's not a cure-all, but it will help manage the water and help people fully understand the amount being pulled from the river," Sebesta said. "We've just been going on the honor system in the past. We're here to explain the widespread use of that river water for municipalities, agriculture, industry and for habitats of birds and fish."

LBRC has received support from the BRA, the GCWA, Pearland and Brazosport chambers of commerce, and Brazoria County commissioners.

Group members have communicated concerns to legislators in Austin. The coalition officially opposes legislation that cuts funding for the watermaster program, holds more water upstream or reclassifies recreational water use to give it equal priority. Several bills were filed that took aim at the BRA, but no bills have made it through the committee process as of mid-March.

During a Feb. 25-26 trip to the Capitol, officials with the Pearland Chamber of Commerce communicated to representatives the importance of keeping water flowing downstream.

"Water is becoming a high commodity in Texas," Chamber President Carol Artz-Bucek said. "Since water issues affect our local businesses and community, we support any efforts to protect our watersheds."
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