While Austin Still Waters Its Lawns, Texas Considers Cutting Off Water To A Major Estuary

CREDIT: AP/Betsy Blaney

A dried-up commercial marina dock in Texas from July.

A dried-up commercial marina dock in Texas from July.

CREDIT: AP/Betsy Blaney

The record-breaking drought that’s gripped Texas for the last five years has prompted the state’s public utility to call for a halt of freshwater flow to its second-largest estuary.

That decision could wreak havoc on the estuary’s ecosystem, and environmentalists in Texas are calling on the state’s cities to enact other water-saving rules first: in Austin, for instance, residents are still allowed to water their lawns, despite the drought.

On Sept. 26, the Lower Colorado River Authority filed an application to the state asking to be allowed to halt freshwater input into Matagorda Bay, an estuary on the Texas coast that provides important habitat for many species of birds, fish and mammals and is a nursery for for finfish, shrimp and crabs. Currently, the Authority is obligated by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to send a certain amount of water down the Colorado into the estuary each year, a setup known as “environmental flow” that’s aimed at ensuring the health of the estuary ecosystem.

Already, the Texas drought has meant the amount of freshwater flowing into the bay from the Highland Lakes is at historic lows, which means the salinity level of the bay is dangerously high, threatening the marine creatures that live in the bay. When salt levels in the bay get too high, young shrimp, fish and oysters have a hard time surviving, which is bad news for the ecosystem and for the fishing industry that depends on it.

“Our estuaries here in Texas have been gradually, slowly starved to death because the cities have been taking more and more water,” Buddy Treybig, a commercial fisherman in Matagorda County, told ClimateWire. “Over the last few years, we’re having to go further and further offshore to find shrimp, which means we’re already not producing. If they cut this off, then it’s completely done.”

While Matagorda Bay awaits its fate, cities like Austin still haven’t stepped up their water usage rules. Austin is under Stage 2 water restrictions, which means residents, businesses and schools can water their lawns during restricted days and times, despite the fact that it would take about 11 inches of rain to officially end the drought in Austin.

“You’ve got Austinites continuing to fill up their pools, continuing to water their lawns, continuing to do pretty much everything they want to with the water supply,” Mitch Thames, president of the Bay City Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture, told the Texas Tribune.

Putting more restrictions on Austin’s water use before halting freshwater flow to the bay for the rest of the year would save more water, too — according to the Texas Tribune, halting the flow would only save 6,000 acre-feet of water, which is less than 5 percent of the amount of water Austin uses in one year. A Stage 3 watering ordinance would ban all outdoor watering — that ordinance is reserved for “water emergencies,” a designation Burnet County, TX Judge Donna Klaeger told Climate Wire was appropriate for Texas’s current state of affairs.

“This is not ‘if’ we have an emergency; we’re in an emergency,” Klaeger said. “We’re in a disaster.”

Despite some late-September rains, experts in Texas predict the drought could last for another five to 15 years. Increases in drought duration and severity in Texas and the rest of the Southwest have been linked to climate change, and studies have shown that climate change is likely to make already dry areas even drier in the coming decades.