"Watershed News" will have the dual mission of reporting the work of our volunteers and keeping you informed of the issues concerning land and water in the Wimberley Valley. Together, we are all working to protect Jacob's Well and the waters that make this place so beautiful.
Matagorda Bay is the second largest
estuary on the Texas Gulf Coast. The Bay stretches over approximately 350
square miles and, in a normal year, receives an average of 1.8 million
acre-feet of inflows from the Colorado River. So far this year, bay inflows
have been about 150,000 acre-feet. Tuesday, the LCRA Board met to discuss the fate of Matagorda Bay.
More about that in a moment – but first let’s explain how we got there.
The Colorado and Matagorda Bay
As the stewards of the Lower
Colorado River, the LCRA
is responsible for managing the Highland Lakes and administering their Water Management Plan (WMP). Under the terms of
the WMP, LCRA is committed to pass water from upstream through the Highland
Lakes in order to maintain certain conditions in the Colorado River and
Matagorda Bay. The water traveling to the Bay is known as freshwater inflows and provides essential
nutrients and sediments and helps to moderate salinity conditions needed to
support fish and wildlife along with the seafood businesses, hunting, fishing,
and nature tourism activities that depend on that fish and wildlife. This bay,
or estuary, is extremely important to marine fish and shellfish reproduction
because, by some estimates, 97% of these creatures spend at least some portion
of their life cycle in an estuary.
The WMP contains triggers for
different releases based on the combined storage of Lake Buchanan and Lake
Travis. If the combined storage is below 1.1 million acre-feet, like it is now, LCRA manages water contributions
to Matagorda Bay under a “critical” management scenario. This means,
unless there is heavy runoff downstream of the dams, they are only providing a
small fraction of the water the organisms in Matagorda Bay need to do
well. Water demand upstream coupled with continued drought conditions
means the LCRA has to make some hard decisions about who is and isn’t going to
receive water if it doesn’t rain soon.
The Matagorda Bay estuary system
essentially is on life support at these critical levels of inflow and has been
for several years. As a result, conditions there are already really bad and
would only get worse without the needed inflows. As the Water Management Plan
acknowledges, the critical level of freshwater inflows is designed to provide a
small sanctuary area near the mouth of the river where organisms can persist
during severe drought conditions so they will be available to repopulate the
larger bay when better rainfall conditions return.
Matagorda Bay Marsh
On Tuesday, the LCRA Board
considered asking the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality if LCRA could
cut off even those critical inflows for the bay. Although the Board agreed to
honor its commitment under the WMP and allow water to flow downstream to the
Bay this month, it also decided to seek emergency relief to reduce or suspend
the obligation to make those releases for the remainder of the year.
While it is good that the LCRA Board decided to honor its immediate
commitment to provide water to Matagorda Bay, the decision to seek
emergency relief for the remainder of the year could put the future well-being
of Matagorda Bay and the communities and businesses that depend on it at undue
Clearly, the region is experiencing
drought, but we should not put the long-term health of the estuary
system and the local economies that depend on it at such high risk while other
non-essential uses of water are being allowed to continue in the Lower Colorado
basin. We need to ensure that we provide water for both people and
This is not about critters versus
people. The amount of water that the Water Management Plan requires to be
released for Matagorda Bay is very small compared to the amount that is
regularly being applied to lawns in the basin to keep them green. Besides,
lots of people depend on a healthy Matagorda Bay for their livelihoods and
quality of life.
Texans need to steward our precious
water supplies carefully all of the time and especially during a severe drought
like the one that we are confronting today. Although the time may come, if
drought conditions persist, when even life-support flows for the bay must be
reduced, that time has not yet arrived.
Critical level releases will be made
for the rest of this month. In the meantime, the LCRA Board will meet on September
18th to decide whether they are going to ask TCEQ for permission to
completely discontinue or just to reduce the commitment to provide critical
inflows for the bay during the rest of the year. Without adequate inflows, the
future health of Matagorda Bay could be unnecessarily compromised. Stay