DENTON — In 1957, John Graves decided to take a canoe trip down the upper midsection of the Brazos River before a series of dams would turn his favorite stretch of river into a string of lakes. Graves was from river country, and feared his beloved river would be squeezed dry if five proposed flood-control dams were built in the Upper Brazos.
Starting at Possum Kingdom Lake, the location of the first constructed dam, Graves canoed about 175 miles down the Brazos to bid farewell to the river that held him in awe in his youth. His emotional journey, which he chronicled in what is now an American classic, “Goodbye to a River,” evokes his “enraged awe” over the river that would “shortly not exist” as he had known it.
Today, three dams — Possum Kingdom Lake, Lake Whitney and Lake Granbury — control the upper reaches of the Brazos, the same stretch of river where Graves paddled his canoe and predicted the dams would transform the river into “bead strings of placid reservoirs behind concrete walls.”
“Goodbye to a River” is an elegy to Texas’s wild and mighty river before it was lost to modernity, to man’s attempts to tame it and control it. Yet it’s also prophetic. Today, the river is in a death grip, facing what climatologists fear may become the worst drought in Texas history, even drier than the “Big Dry Up” between 1950 and 1957 that drained the Brazos River and scorched its fertile 42,000-square-mile basin.
Across the state, the drought is intensifying. The state’s water development board said two-thirds of the state is now grappling with severe to moderate drought, and statewide reservoir storage is the lowest it’s been since 1990. Lake Arrowhead, for example, a reservoir on the Little Wichita River serving Wichita Falls, is just 25 percent full. Rainfall is so rare in the region that the city is spending more than $600,000 on “cloud seeding” — shooting silver iodide into infertile storm clouds overhead, hoping to induce rain.
In parts of the upper Brazos, the river has been reduced to a trickle. And the reservoirs it feeds are steadily evaporating, forcing state water regulators to develop “drought contingency plans” that would require more stringent curtailments if water levels continue to drop.
Yet, even as climatologists forecast the flow of water in the Brazos will continue to diminish in coming decades, the state wants to dam up more of the river and its tributaries to create nine more reservoirs to supply water for some 5.4 million people expected to be living in the Brazos Basin in 2060.
A state advisory group, the Brazos River Basin and Bay Expert Science Team, reported last year that building additional reservoirs could irreparably harm the river and its surrounding habitat. In the upper Brazos, thousands of smalleye and sharpnose shiner — a species that exits nowhere else in the world — found themselves stranded in stagnant pools of water. State wildlife officials and volunteers rushed to rescue the shiners with nets and relocate them to the state’s fish hatchery near Possum Kingdom Lake.
“Many threatened or endangered species serve as indicator species, that is, as the ‘canary in the coal mine,’” said Lesli Gray, an official with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “If water quality and quantity is not sufficient to support the shiner, impacts to human communities may be down the road.”
Hotbeds of contention
But building new dams and storage reservoirs in the Brazos is just one of the hotbeds of contention. As the drought drags on, labyrinthine laws that allocate increasingly scarce water supplies in Texas are setting farmers against manufacturers, community against community, and state agency against state agency.
Today, there’s simply not enough water flowing in the Brazos River to satisfy all the water rights claimed by cities, farmers and industry. “Even in normal to moderately dry times, a lot of junior rights permits will not have enough water to divert,” said Brad Brunett, water services manager for the Brazos River Authority, which also manages Belton and Stillhouse Hollow lakes.
Martin Rochelle, a lawyer who represents dozens of cities that draw water from the Upper Brazos, often lies awake at night worrying about the drought’s stranglehold on the Brazos. “There will be a land rush for water,” Rochelle said. “That can’t be good for anyone, and it certainly isn’t good for the Texas economy, which is the envy of many of our sister states. We have big challenges simply as a result of Mother Nature, dueling with each other on the side won’t be good for anyone.”
The dueling is already taking place in courtrooms across Texas. One dispute broke out in December 2012, pitting farmers against cities, power plants and Dow Chemical, a giant chemical complex at the mouth of the Brazos. The Texas Farm Bureau and two farmers challenged the state’s authority to suspend farmers’ diversion rights to the river during a drought while exempting municipalities and power plants from the suspension.
Under Texas’ “prior appropriations system” of allocating water, predicated on a “first-in-time, first-in-right” doctrine, Dow held “priority rights” to the Brazos dating back to 1942, and that gave the company the right to millions of gallons of river water over all the other holders of water rights younger than theirs.
Since 2009 the flow rate in the drought-stricken Brazos has been so low and slow at times that Dow feared there might not be enough water moving down the river to operate its plant. On five different occasions, Dow asked the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to enforce its senior diversion rights.
In 2012, Dow touched off a storm when it asked the TCEQ to suspend the “junior rights” of farmers, municipalities and other users upstream from their plant in order to ensure its “senior rights” to 150,000 acre-feet per year, or about 48 billion gallons of water, would flow downstream to its plant.
Dow said its plant and local residents consume an average of about 100 million gallons of water a day. But in November 2012, the plant’s daily water consumption far exceeded the 143 million gallons of water used daily by the 1.3 million residents of Dallas. Between 2009 and 2012, Dow used more than 1 trillion gallons of water from the river, according to the TCEQ.
The Texas Farm Bureau argued that suspending the diversion rights of farmers while allowing cities and power plants with junior rights to divert water overturned the state’s own water appropriation laws. A Travis County court agreed with the farmers. The TCEQ appealed the ruling, and is now considering appointing a “watermaster” to monitor water rights to the Brazos.
Watermasters monitor and enforce surface water rights on the Concho River in West Texas, the Colorado River Basin in South Texas and parts of the Nueces River and Rio Grande River. But on the Brazos, the state relies on an honor system, counting on farmers and other users to divert only the water they’re entitled to under their appropriation rights. One of the major flaws in this system, however, is that “water users have no reliable way to know how much of the water flowing by is theirs to divert and how much they must allow to pass to senior-right holders downstream,” according to a recent TCEQ report.
The appointment of a watermaster would come at a good time for Dow. The flow of water in the Brazos is so slow that saltwater in the Gulf of Mexico is migrating back up river. To prevent saltwater intrusion, Dow has increasingly released millions of gallons of water purchased and stored in the BRA’s reservoirs “to keep the salt wedge from migrating upriver” and entering the plant’s intake pumps, according to a spokeswoman.
Need more water
But when it comes to the Brazos River Authority, the quasi-public entity that manages water supplies for the Brazos Basin, the mistrust over its 2004 request for a permit from the TCEQ to divert 421,449 acre-feet of water per year from the Brazos on top of the 670,000 acre-feet per year it currently diverts has united an unlikely group of opponents: environmentalists, farmers, homeowners and even Dow Chemical.
Brunett said the agency is requesting the additional water “because we have contracted for all the water available to us through our existing water right permits.” But opponents worry that diversion of so much additional water will impact the river’s flow, the quality of the water, and, in the case of Dow, their senior water rights.
“These water battles are a result of a system that’s utterly broken,” said Rick Lowerre, an environmental lawyer representing landowners who filed suit seeking to block the BRA’s new permit. “Most states have strict limits on speculation. You don’t get the water if you can’t show a real need. But over the last 10 to 15 years, the state has changed the law by agency action to eliminate a showing of need — a real beneficial use — allowing for speculation and banking of water rights. So the BRA can ask for the rest of the water in the river and force people who need water to buy from it without regard to impacts on the environment, property values and other concerns.”
Saving their lakes
As the reservoirs evaporate, residents are concerned that if the TCEQ grants the BRA’s request for more water, their property values will plummet and their way of life will be destroyed. They’ve banded together in grassroots organizations to save the river and their lakes.
At Possum Kingdom Lake, where Graves’ journey down the river began, Jim Lattimore spent his life on the lake with his children, boating, fishing and hiking. The lake remains as important to him as the untamed river was to Graves. Lattimore understands the lakes were made to provide water and electricity to people across the river basin. But just as Graves felt a sacred connection to the river, he also feels an almost mystical tie to the lake.
But today, there’s a lot less of the lake left to love. As the flow of water from the upper Brazos falters because of the drought, sediment has been slowly building in the lake, reducing its storage capacity by 200,000 acre feet, according to the state’s water development board. A BRA spokesman disputes the claim of sediment buildup and said despite the rapid decline in lake levels, “there’s still a lot of water there.”
That thinking, Lattimore said, represents a mindset that doesn’t fully grasp the consequences of collecting and selling huge volumes of water to cities and industry from a river severely stressed beyond any time in its history. “If they sell a million acre-feet in a year,” he said, “they could conceivably drain Possum Kingdom and still be looking for more water.”