Who's ensuring water is available to all?
Water is probably the most underappreciated "utility" we Texans enjoy. But it is not just a utility, and it isn't a luxury. Water is a necessity that human bodies can't live without, food won't grow without, and industry requires to produce electricity – that we can't live without.
With so many straws reaching into our limited glass of water, how can we be assured that the water won't run out?
Acting as a safeguard for communities across the Brazos River Basin, the Brazos Watermaster program plays a crucial role in ensuring that everyone that has a right to water will have it available to them.
The Brazos Watermaster, a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality program, administers water rights in the Brazos River basin in an area that extends from Possum Kingdom Lake, about 75 miles west of Fort Worth, all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. The organization's duties also include monitoring the flow of the river and its tributaries, reservoir levels and water use in the basin; enforcing compliance with water rights; and responding to complaints about unauthorized water use.
Texas has a long history of drought, and there is no indication of that changing.
When rainfall keeps the basin's rivers, lakes, and tributaries full, there's less concern than when drought keeps its grip firmly on the area for extended periods. Texas relies on the honor system in most parts of the state to protect water rights during drought. However, the Brazos Watermaster holds water right holders accountable for how much they are taking, no matter the season, stretching this limited resource effectively.
Water accountability is especially important because the strain on the demand for the supply stored in the Brazos basin will only continue. The 2022 State Water Plan predicts Texas' population to increase 73% between 2020 and 2070, from 29.7 million to 51.5 million. And each of those Texans will need water.
With changes to weather patterns, coupled with an increase in population, water will become ever more precious. Texas, after all, relies heavily on surface water. The state climatologist's office at Texas A&M University, in a 2021 report states the number of 100-degree days at typical stations is expected to nearly double by 2036 compared to 2001-2020; and the average annual Texas surface temperature in 2036 is expected to be 3.0 °F warmer than the 1950-1999 average, according to the report. And we know that higher heat means more evaporation and increased water use.
The Brazos Watermaster is often mistaken to be an arm of the Brazos River Authority. Rather, the Brazos River Authority, as one of many holders of state-issued water rights across the basin, is required by state law to report all water use to the Brazos Watermaster like every other water right holder in the basin.
A water right is essentially a permit from the state of Texas to impound, divert, or use the state's water. Since all surface water in Texas is owned by the state and held in trust for its residents, the state grants the right to use its water to farmers, cities, industries, and more.
Currently under the direction of Molly Mohler, the Brazos Watermaster program closely monitors surface water use by all water right holders across 41 counties, ranging from Stephens and Palo Pinto counties in the north and west to Fort Bend and Brazoria counties in the south and east, all within a large portion of the Brazos River basin.
The BRA possesses 16 water right permits for a significant amount of water in the basin, allowing the BRA to store water in the 11 reservoirs within the supply system for municipal, industrial, agricultural, and mining purposes.
While the BRA water supply system is more complex than most other surface water right holders, being a large permit holder does not exempt the BRA from the requirements of its various water rights, which are monitored and regulated by the watermaster.
The Brazos Watermaster Program, based out of Waco, began full operations in 2015 and was established through a provision of the Texas Water Code following the last major drought that lasted from 2011 - 2015.
The Watermaster program also oversees situations where someone pumping water (a diversion) could be taking water that rightfully belongs to another permit holder. Additionally, when streamflow decreases, the watermaster may allocate the water available among the water right holders according to each user's water right permit priority date.
"Diverters are required to have measuring devices installed prior to diverting water," Mohler said during the May 2021 BRA Board of Directors Meeting. "This is true for all water right holders, as well as Brazos River Authority customers. Once the measuring device is certified, they can request a diversion. This enables us to manage diversions throughout the basin based on priority."
Due to these requirements, the Brazos River Authority communicates with the Brazos Watermaster regularly.
"The communication is very fluid and continuous," said Chris Higgins, BRA's lead hydrologist.
All BRA water supply users that divert water along the Brazos River and its tributaries downstream of any of the 11 reservoirs in the BRA system are required to provide weekly estimates of what they intend to pump for the following week. They are also required to report how much water they actually took from the river over the previous week. Some of these downstream water users reach out frequently throughout the week as conditions change. Meanwhile, lakeside users require less day-to-day management as they report their actual water use to the BRA monthly.
Water Supply Reservoirs
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As that information comes in, the BRA relays the use to the Brazos Watermaster to allow them to better manage the system. This program requires substantial coordination, including detailed metering and water use reporting requirements.
The Brazos Watermaster is aware of when the BRA has a dedicated water supply release out of a particular reservoir for a particular user and will take appropriate action to ensure that water makes it down to the intended end user, Higgins said.
It's a complicated process streamlined through the cooperation of everyone involved.
"There's certain customers that have water rights that are senior to the rights that authorize us (the BRA) to store water in our reservoirs. These senior water right holders are located downstream of all the reservoirs within the system," Higgins said. "For example, Lake Granbury's water right priority date is from the lake 60's. But, there are some that date back pre-1930s, which would be considered senior to the Lake Granbury water right. So, for instance, if there's a shortage of water and those senior water rights can no longer physically take from the natural flow of the river, the watermaster may direct the BRA to pass any inflow into the lake downstream to the senior water right holder.”
Texas has three other watermasters:
- the Rio Grande Watermaster, who coordinates releases from the Amistad and Falcon reservoir system
- the South Texas Watermaster, who serves the Nueces, San Antonio, Guadalupe, and Lavaca rivers and coastal basins
- the South Texas Watermaster also serves as the Concho Watermaster, overseeing the Concho River and its tributaries in the Colorado River Basin