Trout Unlimited Wages Battle Over Water Rights

A Dam Shame

November 12, 1999: When it comes to fishing, no group of anglers has quite the same mystical or quixotic heft as those who dream of catching a trout on a fly. Armed with gossamer-thin line and hooks decorated with feathers, fur, and thread, this dedicated subset of sportsmen and women -- featured in countless SUV commercials and films such as A River Runs Through It -- prizes itself on the poetry and beauty of conjuring handsome and fierce trout from crystal waters. In Central Texas, where there is but one fishery that sustains this beloved quarry, it only makes sense that a threat to the continued presence of trout there has been met with the sort of crusade generally reserved for bona fide endangered species. The trout in question come in two varieties -- rainbow and brown -- and live in the Guadalupe River, a popular recreation destination, where the waters flowing from Canyon Reservoir form the southernmost trout fishery in the nation. As countless Austin fun seekers know, the stretch of water below the dam stays cool even during the summer months, drawing rafters, kayakers, and tubers by the thousands, not to mention the anglers who want to see their precious fishery maintained. Moreover, due to the relatively mild winters locally, the Guadalupe has increasingly become a Mecca for Northern anglers seeking action in what tends to be an off season elsewhere.

But as the population of the surrounding counties grows, the Guadalupe Blanco River Authority (GBRA) has entered into a series of contracts that could ruin a fishery which many believe has the potential to rival any in the South and draw millions of dollars into the local economy. The authority has committed to deliver water through 2037 to the San Antonio River Authority, San Antonio Water Systems, and Bexar Metropolitan Water District. And just last month, GBRA announced it had reached agreements with Boerne and Fair Oaks Ranch to deliver approximately 2,240 acre-feet of water annually for the next 20 years.

David Schroeder, Trout Unlimited

Outraged at this possibility, the Guadalupe Chapter of Trout Unlimited (GRTU), a national conservation group, will soon have a chance to air its concerns before the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission. This January, the TNRCC will hold hearings on a new permit that could allow the GBRA to draw nearly twice as much water from Canyon Lake as is currently allowed.

According to the GBRA, it aims primarily to help out water-poor Texans around the Guadalupe basin. But critics say the current approach leaves something to be desired; nearly a dozen individuals and groups have requested hearings in order to challenge or amend GBRA's plan. GRTU's goal is to make sure enough water gets left in the Guadalupe that a breeding population of wild trout might eventually be sustained there. Despite the lack of nearby trout streams, Texas is home to the country's largest TU chapter, boasting over 2,500 members, and the group's case has attracted the attention of one of the state's top environmental law firms, Campbell George and Strong of Houston.

Says TU member David Schroeder, who heads the committee that's tackling the problem: "This situation is unique. We want non-consumptive rights to the water in order to protect the fishery. Texas doesn't have any other trout streams, so if we can get a more sustainable habitat with more and more of the larger trout in the stream, the resource would be worth more."

Currently, the GBRA, under an agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers and TNRCC, controls the amount of water that flows through the dam and has the right to divert 50,000 acre-feet annually. It sells this water to surrounding counties and towns, while protecting those who live below the dam from flooding. As the region grapples with growth, GBRA has requested rights to up its allowance to 90,000 acre-feet. (An acre-foot equals water a foot deep spread over an acre, and each untreated acre-foot of water sells for $61.) The increase in water being removed would be compensated by a "subordination" of several small hydroelectric dams the authority runs, thereby increasing the water available in the reservoir.

Judy Gardner of the GBRA says the new proposal is chiefly designed to make sure that local needs are met and that the plan has no provision to protect the fishery. "The permit request is based on projected demand increases due to the region's growing population," Gardner says. "It's not like we're a corporation. Anything we would earn we would put back into water programs."

The application, which the TNRCC began reviewing in mid-August, calls for the construction of a 43-mile pipeline spanning the Guadalupe River basin and also a water treatment plant near Canyon Reservoir, with the capacity to treat nearly 10 million gallons per day. Those with contracts to use this water would end up paying a little more than $2 for each thousand gallons. Although the permit is still pending a technical review by the TNRCC, the nuances of water law allow GBRA to set up a series of contracts that could help pave the way for this new deal.

Going Against the Flow

Steve Magnelia, a state fishieries biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife, says that without placing some limits on how and when the water is taken out of Canyon Reservoir, it will be impossible to maintain the year-round trout population that has emerged below the dam during the past few years. The only way to keep the water cool enough to sustain the trout, he says, is to make sure that the flow stays above 200 cubic feet per second through the late summer months.

If water levels drop, Magnelia says, the result is dead fish -- as were seen at the beginning of August when flows were lowered to 100 cubic feet per second and people reported seeing lots of dead trout downstream. Magnelia adds that when water levels drop it creates problems not just for trout, but for people too. "It just diminishes recreational opportunities," he says. "The key is that when they say on average 200 [cubic feet per second] for the summer, what they mean is they run it at about 350 for half the summer and then run it at 100 for half."

Rafters on the Guadalupe

GBRA's Gardner acknowledges she doesn't know exactly what's needed to maintain the trout fishery, but adds that the fishing constituency is not her employer's biggest concern. By upping the amount of water coming from Canyon Reservoir by 40,000 acre-feet, she says, GBRA will decrease the need for another impoundment to supply the liquid gold to these communities, and that could save taxpayers a lot of money. "A lot of people are describing this as a diversion," Gardner adds. "But this is nothing new. It's what the dam was built for, so it's not some new use. It's simply a way we can make it more productive."

Lest anybody think that the death of trout is small potatoes, Magnelia points out that the success of the Guadalupe as a trout stream largely results from an ongoing stocking program. Texas Parks and Wildlife releases 10,000 fish per year to the stream at a cost of over $20,000, while the Comal County Water Oriented Recreation District, which collects taxes on marinas above the dam and outfitters and equipment rental businesses below the dam, contributes $5,000 to buy an additional 6,000 fish. Of course, GRTU also has a vested interested in the stocking program, spending $35,000 of membership dues to ensure that there are trout in the river.

Magnelia adds that while stocking has contributed to a burgeoning year-round population of trout, there's a chance to double the fishery if river flows are maintained at a higher rate. Right now, he says, only the five miles closest to the dam are effective year-round habitat; downstream, out of 10 miles of potential trout habitat, less than three miles are being used because the water levels -- and therefore the temperatures -- are not constant through the summer months.

If the GBRA were willing to increase the flow during the heat of the summer, the fisheries biologist says, "that would really put us on the map, and the Guadalupe would be a national attraction." It almost goes without saying that a nationally touted trout stream would also be a moneymaker for local businesses and outfitters from Austin to San Antonio.

In the mind of attorney Tom Campbell, a partner with the Houston law firm challenging the river authority on GRTU's behalf, there may even be a legal precedent for establishing a blue ribbon trout stream in Texas. Campbell worked out the economic impact of the Exxon Valdez disaster, totaling nearly a billion dollars, and notes that recent settlements in such trout-rich states as Montana have included payments up to $250 million to mitigate the impact of dams and pollution. Looking at the Guadalupe, Campbell figures that the loss of the warm water fishery that existed prior to the building of the dam, when judged against the ecological and economic values that a year-round trout fishery represents, could total as much as $100 million.

Meanwhile, Alvin Dedeaux of the Austin Angler, a Congress Avenue fly shop, says that the word concerning "the Guad," as some local anglers refer to the river, is definitely spreading across the country. In the last couple of years, he says, the fly shop has added a guide service and has been taking between 100 and 150 clients -- many of whom come from as far away as New York and Pennsylvania -- down the river each winter. "It's definitely gotten more popular in the past few years," says Dedeaux.

The Guadalupe Blanco River Authority wants to sell water to the San Antonio River Authority, San Antonio Water Systems, and the communities of Boerne and Fair Oaks Ranch -- a move opposed by recreational users of Canyon Lake and the Guadalupe River.

With national magazines and fishing shows adding to the river's renown, he adds, dollars should continue to flow to area outfitters as well as the restaurants, hotels, and bars that cater to the fly-flinging crowd. But a spokesman for the New Braunfels Chamber of Commerce says that for the time being the group will not be taking a position on the GBRA application; instead the chamber is going to allow Trout Unlimited and the Water Oriented Recreation District take the lead on the question of how much water should be released.

Attorney Campbell maintains that he's got a solid case. "The TNRCC has an obligation to look at this uniquely valuable natural resource," he says. "We need to ask is it right for [GBRA] to take water from the surface of the lake, and not release it to the river but rather put it in a pipe and ship the water someplace else?" Citing an allowance this past summer that provided recreationists with constant flows of nearly 350 cubic feet per second through early August, GRTU has requested that GBRA figure out a way to maintain water levels below the dam regardless of its other contractual obligations.

But while the river authority has sought to resolve issues with many of those who have opposed the permit changes, including the Water Oriented Recreation District (which apparently was mostly concerned with reservoir levels, and not stream flow), it has yet to address the anglers' concerns in a meaningful way. "We're trying to work through the communication process," says Gardner, who quickly adds that maintaining a flow of 200 cubic feet per second could threaten the water supply. Then she goes briefly on the offensive, offering that the Canyon Dam's original permitting plan from the 1960s called for a mere 90 cubic feet per second and suggesting that the GBRA has more important things than trout stocking to worry about. "The dam is a water storage and flood control project," she says. "All we're trying to do is supply water that's reasonably priced to people who need it."

TU's lawyers, however, say that the permitting process need not be viewed as an all-or-nothing situation. With the TNRCC review of the permit pending and a chance to present his case to the state, Campbell believes there's still a chance to find some common ground between his clients and the river authority. "GBRA has been relatively callous when it comes to ecological considerations," he says. "But there's a growing awareness that entities such as this need to take into consideration that they are not simply businesses, and that they have to take into account the additional significance of these resources."

See Also:

Council Watch
Behind Closed Doors: The Nature of the City's Lawsuits [10-22-99]

A Rural Riddle
How Should Hays County Manage Growth? [10-15-99]

Naked City
Off the Desk [10-01-99]