This commentary, written by Leigh Thompson and Megan Ingram, originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on March 21, 2016.
It’s no secret that California has been in the midst of its worst drought in 500 years, leaving agricultural areas and cities fighting over every drop of water the state can spare. Since 2008, however, California has diverted 1.4 trillion gallons of water away from Central and Southern Californians as a result of the Endangered Species Act protection of the delta smelt.
Farms and businesses have been, and continue to be, wrung dry as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stipulates that more than 81 billion gallons of water be held off-limits to human use; that is enough to bring 85,000 acres of farmland back into production.
As Texans, it is easy for us to smugly view California as a prime example of mismanagement, a fate to avoid. Unfortunately, the joke’s on us. Enter: the blue sucker fish, Texas’ very own version of the delta smelt.
Listed as “vulnerable,” the species isn’t especially threatened when you consider that it is found in 23 states. But in Texas, their spawning sites are listed as at risk along the lower Colorado River. The Lower Colorado River Authority’s current Water Management Plan requires the LCRA to maintain an environmental flow standard during the blue sucker’s spawning season.
From March until the end of May, the portion of the Colorado River between Bastrop and Eagle Lake must maintain a flow of 500 cfs (cubic feet per second) or 224,400 gallons per minute. The 500 cfs flow was based on a study done in 1992 that is now archaic.
Texas is essentially flushing more than 29 billion gallons of water a year.
Years of severe drought in the Lone Star State forced LCRA to make emergency requests for change. These requests included reducing the blue sucker’s environmental flow requirement to 300 cfs, a decrease that would still support 86 percent of maximum available spawning habitat, while only releasing about 4,000 acre-feet of water.
Luke Buchanan and Lake Travis of the Highland Lakes are the main reservoirs of the lower Colorado River basin and provide water for over a million Texans, businesses, industries and farms. However, both also function as LCRA’s water storage to meet flow requirements for the blue sucker.
In 2013 alone, this environmental flow requirement meant that almost 19,000 acre-feet of water was released by LCRA from the Highland Lakes, an egregious blow to Texas residents during a prolonged period of drought.
Texas rice farmers in the Matagorda basin throughout Bay City, El Campo, Wharton and other communities have been among the worst hurt. Rice is best suited to grow in shallow wet mud, meaning that it needs 3 to 4 inches of standing water. Beginning in 2012, rice farmers’ prayers for rain went unanswered, and as a result, LCRA found that the Highland Lakes remained too low to afford water releases for downstream farmers to irrigate their fields, but filed for no emergency relief to reduce the amount of flow to the blue sucker.
Yet, rice farmers, which produce around 7 percent of the rice produced nationally, have held the most senior water rights in the Colorado River since the early 19th century — superior to even the LCRA’s own right in the Highland Lakes. While worries of maintaining maximum spawning habitat for the blue sucker persisted, downstream farmers were deprived of irrigation water for an unprecedented four continuous years.
By releasing only 4,000 acre-feet of water rather than 19,000 acre-feet, Texas could use a scant one-fifth of the water the environmental flow standard requires to not only ensure the blue sucker’s survival, but also its continued ability to thrive.
After years of severe drought, the Highland Lakes are now filled to nearly 90 percent capacities. But just a year ago both were barely over 35 percent capacities. While the drought has lifted in the short term due to rainfall last spring, Texas’ water supply should not be subjected to the life cycle of a fish that can be found in nearly half of the United States.
By blindly treating biodiversity as a single-faceted issue with no consequences, states are threatening the needs of their residents and wasting valuable water resources during a time of drought. The blue sucker represents a glaring need for policy change. When it comes to something as pivotal for life as water, the proven possibility to effectively balance species conservation with economic responsibility presents Texas with a lucky opportunity to learn from California’s mistakes.
Texas should reform its environmental flow standards because people, not fish, are ultimately our most cherished resource.
Megan Ingram is a research assistant and Leigh Thompson is a policy analyst with the Armstrong Center for Energy and the Environment with the Texas Public Policy Foundation.