There’s more than 150 miles of rugged Hill Country and sprawling prairie between the Highland Lakes and Matagorda Bay, but the fate of the two is closely linked.
That’s because the bay’s prolific estuaries rely on freshwater from lakes Travis and Buchanan to maintain healthy habitat for the countless shorebirds, fish and marine life that depend on them. It’s a critical relationship that the National Wildlife Federation’s Myron Hess wants everyone to consider in the current update of the Water Management Plan. That plan spells out how and when water from the Highland Lakes can be used.
Hess, who is part of the Lower Colorado River Authority’s advisory committee created to help update the plan, is not alone when it comes to looking out for the environment. He’s joined on the 16-member committee by the Sierra Club’s Jennifer Walker and Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Cindy Loeffler.
Their goal is to help forge a plan that protects the environment while meeting the needs of all those who depend on the water in the Highland Lakes. The lakes serve as drinking supply for some 1.1 million people in Central Texas, as well as provide water essential for industry, businesses and agriculture.
"One of the challenges in the Water Management Plan is to make sure that, as we’re meeting human needs, we also provide an adequate amount of fresh water to keep that estuary healthy and productive in the future," Hess said. "We inherited an amazing natural heritage here in Texas. I feel it’s incumbent on us to pass along a reasonable level of that natural heritage to future generations."
Matagorda Bay is the second largest estuary in Texas. Nearly 300 different species of finfish, shellfish and invertebrates have been found there. It is a critical nursery to much of the marine life that thrives along the coast and in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as an important stopover for the millions of migratory birds that make their way through Texas every year. It’s connected to the Highland Lakes by the Colorado River, which supplies roughly 44 percent of the bay’s fresh water.
The Colorado River itself is home to more than 70 species of fish. Some are unique to the area. These include the Guadalupe bass, the state’s official fish, and the blue sucker, which is listed as a threatened species by the state.
The plan spells out how much water is released from the Highland Lakes for the environment on a daily and monthly basis, both in normal weather and in times of drought. There have been several studies to determine how much water the species in the river and bay need to thrive, and, in bad times, survive. These studies look at factors such as the balance of nutrients, sediments and salinity as salt and fresh water mix in the bay.
Among the committee’s duties over its year of work is to sort through the scientific studies and to make recommendations on which should be used to establish how much water is needed for the river and bay. Those decisions will be made by the LCRA Board with input from the committee members who represent the environment, as well as those who represent the communities, industry, neighborhoods and farmers who also depend on the water.
"I think there is room to share this resource," Walker said. "This has been already happening for many years, but we have to be mindful and make sure that we provide an adequate amount of water for the environment. The Colorado River and Matagorda Bay is very resilient, but I think that we are getting to a point where we are asking a lot of this system."
Fish, fauna and critters aren’t the only things at stake when it comes to making sure the plan incorporates the needs of the environment. Matagorda Bay’s estuaries are essential to species that are important to the commercial fishing industry, and millions of Texans and out-of-state visitors flock to pristine places like Matagorda Bay every year. It’s both recreation and big business, according to a report released by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in 2008. That report found that fishing, hunting and ecotourism such as bird watching pump more than $14 billion a year into the state’s economy. This is something Loeffler thinks everyone should consider as the committee works to meet the region’s needs.
"The water management plan allows us to balance all the different needs," Loeffler said. "But as we go forward, there will be increasing competition for the water because population is growing. We know that we are going to have to work even harder than we have before to make sure all those needs are addressed."
Anton Caputo is a senior communications specialist with LCRA.