It is an irony that in this anomalous year, an El Niño season of persistent rain and swollen rivers, I can’t stop thinking about the limits of water: how it is used, how it is abused, how much (or little) of it there is or will be in the future.
In a mostly closed system like the blue marble we call home, the amount of water – like the amount of carbon – is relatively stable. We have about the same amount now as we did when Jesus walked the earth, and about the same as we will have in the next millennium and the one after that.
As with carbon, the key concern (if you are in fact concerned about rivers and streams and such) is where is that water, what form does it take, and how useful (or pernicious) is it to living creatures, including us.
The Office of the State Demographer projects that the population of Texas will double to about 54 million souls by the year 2050. Much of that population growth – driven mainly by immigration, mostly from the coasts but also from abroad – is already showing up in Central Texas along the I-35 corridor.
Hays (Onion Creek, Blanco River, Pedernales River, San Marcos River), Comal (Comal River, Guadalupe River), and Williamson Counties (San Gabriel River, Brushy Creek) continue to grow at rates north of 20 percent annually, with Hays posting an astounding 35 percent population increase between 2016 and 2017, and Comal ranking as the nation’s second-fastest growing county in 2017. The Austin-Round Rock metro area, meanwhile, was the ninth fastest-growing city in the nation in 2018.
Real estate agents, many of them also recent arrivals, sometimes tell buyers that their properties come with not just river or creek frontage, but “private waters.” The properties may or may not convey with title to the streambeds, and as I’ve written elsewhere, if the stream is navigable in fact or in statute, it hardly matters to recreationalists seeking to use public waterways.
But the new property owners don’t know that, and unpleasantness sometimes ensues.
Meanwhile, the owners of larger tracts of agricultural land, venerable ranches whose titles sometimes stretch back to Spanish colonial days, respond to increasing numbers of careless or contemptuous trespassers by barring legal access and convincing local law enforcement officials (who they help elect) of their right, or at least their rightness.
Beneath all of this lies the indirect but very real pressures booming growth places on the aquifers that feed the springs that feed the streams (that feed our estuaries on the coast): direct pumping of groundwater; increased, untreated runoff that cannot recharge the aquifers through new roads and parking lots and roofs; new (and old) wastewater treatment plants that sometimes have accidents and other times simply don’t give a shit about the shit they are dumping into the rivers;
and neighborhoods and golf courses and resorts which may or may not have thought about establishing an adequate riparian buffer or a system to capture or treat stormwater runoff or how acres upon acres of new turf might impact the nearby stream, both coming and going.
And while we sometimes, almost miraculously, get new access points, no one is bringing additional water with them when they move to Texas. No one is creating new springs, or habitat for Guadalupe bass.
With all of this in mind, in a year when we are (God forgive us) praying for the rain to end and the rivers and creeks to return to normal levels long enough for us to drop a fly into them, a whole bunch of us between San Antonio and San Angelo and Waco recently came to the conclusion that maybe we should stop worrying so much and just get busy.
The low-hanging fruit is legal access. It’s a relatively simple matter to educate the public, landowners, and local law enforcement about existing laws and to enlist experts and the Texas General Land Office to provide opinions about navigability. Some instances will no doubt eventually require adjudication by the courts. That’s pretty straightforward, too, if somewhat time-consuming, and Texas courts have a record of consistently upholding the public’s rights to lawfully use public water.
The larger question is: access to what? The worst-case scenario, if the present trajectory does not change, is a lifeless trickle of effluent. Not this year, or next year, but almost certainly by the time my children’s children are old enough to pick up a fly rod or paddle a kayak.
Despite everything, I still believe that most people – developers and golf course owners and river authorities that control wastewater treatment plants, city and county governments that write ordinances and grant permits – will do the right thing if they know what the right thing is and either a.) it won’t cost a whole lot more money, or b.) they can be convinced that an investment will pay off in the long run.
After all, many of them live here, too, and the value of the amenities they are creating and selling and taxing depend on the same water anglers and paddlers and kids on rope swings enjoy.
And that’s why, at the end of January, I joined a group of concerned citizens at a local brewery to set about the business of organizing the non-profit Texas Streams Coalition. These anglers, paddlers, and lovers of the natural world come from all walks of life. Some derive their livelihoods directly from Central Texas rivers. Others are scientists, physicians, artists, teachers, lawyers, or business owners … even a couple of scruffy tugboat drivers.
Some vote for Republicans, some for Democrats, and probably a few vote for wild-eyed, third-party candidates. We don’t ask, because we don’t really care. Some are religious, some not so much. A bunch of us have young children we hope will have the same opportunities to use Texas waters that we had growing up. Some of us are simply heartbroken at the potential loss of a rare and beautiful natural resource.
The very nature of public waters – creeks and rivers and tidal lands – held in trust for the people of Texas by the State of Texas is that they belong to us. We should internalize that – not just with respect to our rights, but also our responsibilities.
I am reminded of a catchy graphic printed on the onion sack trash bags that the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department will gladly give to any person or organization who volunteers to pick up some trash on our streams: “It’s Up to You.”
Indeed, it is. It’s up to all of us to conserve our fisheries, to preserve and enhance access, to insist that the quality of our streams is not degraded and that baseline flows continue. No one else is going to do it for us. If you agree, we’d love to have you join us.
In the next few months, we’ll have a fancy logo and website, suggestions for how you can donate time or money to the effort, and some pretty cool swag.
In the meantime, find us on Facebook.