This year’s drought has been one of the worst on record. As we watch our environment change in response, the need for fresh water awareness is growing.
For the next several months, Change magazine will bring you local news and views to help understand the need to act now to preserve the one resource we cannot live without.
Saving Galveston Bay is essential to life in local communities
You may have heard that our blue planet is facing a worldwide freshwater crisis. And you may think that resource scarcities only happen in Third World villages. Think again. Our beautiful Galveston Bay, home to our seafood and tourist economy, is in dire straits with disaster ahead if we do not begin to understand the local freshwater cycle, how it affects our Bay and our communities, and begin to act on solutions.
Galveston Bay is a special body of water known as an estuary (pronounced es-choo-er-ee)—an area where the river meets the sea. This delicate location is a complex mixture of sea water and fresh water where a wide variety of aquatic life thrives. This includes oysters, shrimp, certain types of crab, trout, and more; all crucial to our local economy.
Where the water is going
About half of Galveston Bay’s fresh water flows in from the Trinity River. Another 25 percent comes from the San Jacinto River and the rest from various creeks and bayous. The Bay also shares these vital water sources with surrounding cities upstream. Galveston Bay is the end of the road, so by the time the rivers reach the Bay, little freshwater is left.
“This water is used in Dallas for industry, agricultural needs, household needs and more,” explains Scott Jones, Environmental Policy and Outreach Specialist of the Galveston Bay Foundation. “Think of it like a loop. Take the San Jacinto River, for instance. The City of Houston sticks their straw in it and sucks out water. When used, some runs through the gutter back to the creek. Most goes back to water waste treatment plants.” The water that makes it back to the river is then either sucked back out or makes its way down to Galveston Bay.
In the future, companies claim they will make greater efforts to reuse fresh water again and again. Seems like a great idea—water conservation. So where’s the problem?
The bigger, bleaker Picture
“We’re at the end of the pipe,” Jones says. “Sure it’s good water conservation efforts on the parts of these companies, but if you’re looking at it as a whole system, if the water doesn’t get to the bay…”
Then what? What it boils down to is this: the less fresh water that makes its way down to Galveston Bay, the less it’s able to dilute the salt content.
“Salinity will grow too high and the oysters can’t handle that. Higher salinity brings more and different predators—oyster snails, sponges, clams that eat into shells, parasites,” Jones adds. All of which spell doom for the Bay’s oyster population. But what’s so important about oysters?
“It’s not just oysters,” Jones explains. “But they are a keystone species. Not just for restaurants and things like that, but they provide lots of habitat. They filter water. Losing them could set off a devastating chain of events.”
How the government is (and isn’t) intervening
Some government entities are taking measures to combat the problem. Others are not. Scott praises the City of Houston for their efforts, as they “had a permit to get more water rights out of San Jacinto, but agreed to return half of the water that comes out from waste water treatment plants to go back into the river.”
As for the State Government, the Bay isn’t getting much help, if any. According to the Galveston Bay Foundation website, “On April 20, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, by a 2-1 vote, adopted standards for freshwater inflows for Galveston Bay that will not protect this vital estuary. In fact, we believe that the new standards may ultimately do more harm than good for the Bay by providing a false sense of security that Galveston Bay will be protected.”
When asked to comment on the new standards, Jones almost laughingly responded, “They just acknowledged that they have given out so much water that there isn’t much left for the Bay.” Thanks for nothing, TCEQ!
Keeping hope alive
Jones’ role in all this is changing. Originally he had a grant through the National Wildlife Foundation to try and influence the standards that TCEQ would determine. He and his team attempted to do so by rallying environmental groups, activists and even the general public. But now that the standards have been put forth, his job description is changing.
“We have a new grant to work with folks with water permits to see what we can do to make them more efficient with water use. We still have a role but it’s difficult to get them to change their behavior.”
And while the standards were a complete failure for Galveston Bay, even if they had set some boundaries, Jones explains that there is “no mechanism in place to make groups give up their water. A Senate bill came out that basically said ‘you can’t touch water rights that are already out there.’”
What it comes down to is this—no one can demand that cities give up their water. It has to be voluntary.
You can get involved
“Keep the issue alive!” Jones implores. Talk to local elected officials about mandatory water rationing. On a state level you can write letters to TCEQ commissioners and the Governor.
For more information on how you can get involved, visit www.galvbay.org.
Galveston Bay—One of Many in Peril
In the report entitled Bays in Peril, issued by the Federal Wildlife Federation in 2007, it was made known that most all of the Gulf Coast estuaries are in serious trouble. The report states that “Despite their importance, Texas estuaries face an uncertain future because they are last in line, both physically and legally, to get a share of our publicly owned rivers.” The bays in danger include:
San Antonio Bay
Corpus Christi Bay
It seems the Copano/Aransas Bays and Upper Laguna Madro are the only ones that are currently safe.
How much time do we have to save our Bays? According to the report, “We believe these conditions are likely to be seen in the not-too-distant future if Texas does not change how it manages water.”
Photos courtesy Texas Parks & Wildlife Dept. © 2004