Dallas Morning News

So go rivers and streams, so goes Texas

Lawmakers need to back policy with solid science, says WILLIAM McKENZIE

Published: November 8, 2005

Here's the latest in Texas' man/nature conflict - and why it matters:

*Gov. Rick Perry is setting up his own committee to study Texas' rivers and streams. He announced the move two weeks ago, which was like hearing that a heart patient is about to receive new blood.

The state is behind on knowing how much water its rivers and streams need to sustain themselves. Until those answers are clear, Texans won't know how much water they can draw from the Trinity, Colorado and Brazos, among other rivers, for their own use.

The answer to this riddle is no small matter. The state's population is predicted to double by 2050. All those people will need to get water somewhere, and rivers and streams are a primary source. (Let's don't forget farmers and ranchers; they need plenty of water to grow our food.)

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and his Texas Senate get this point. Earlier this year, the Senate agreed to create a scientific study of major rivers and streams, but the House stomped on the idea.

The brutal death filled some municipal leaders and environmentalists with dread, worried that state government would dawdle until the Legislature got back into the river/stream issue in its 2007 session.

So, hoorah for the governor - and for Texas. His panel may get us going. It's supposed to report back next year with findings that could help the state issue the appropriate water permits to big cities like Dallas, Fort Worth and Austin. When it gets down to planning for the state's future, this is huge. (Yes, the governor is in a re-election campaign, so he wants to look good on such a big matter. But, hey, he's doing the right thing.)

*House Speaker Tom Craddick wants his own look at the state's rivers and streams. Last month, the Midland Republican requested that the House Natural Resources Committee study the "environmental flows" issue and report back in 2007.

More than Mr. Perry's interest, Mr. Craddick's conversion verges on Ronald Reagan doing business with his old nemesis, the Soviets. Mr. Craddick heard pleas this spring to bring the Senate bill to the House floor for debate, but, instead, he let it die without the House uttering a syllable.

But the past is past, so hoorah for the speaker as well. What matters is his willingness to enter this intersection of science and policy. The more studies, the better.

*A two-day summit last week at Texas State University rallied the worried. Scientists, legislators, municipal leaders and environmentalists brainstormed about how to keep the rivers/streams issue alive.

One encouraging conclusion is that Texas has the science to look at its inland waterways. For one thing, the respected National Academy of Sciences has given the state's scientific methodology a thumbs-up. And Texas already has done a good job exploring what its bays and estuaries need to thrive, says Texas State University professor Andrew Sansom.

The problem is that the state hasn't deployed scientists and all their gizmos to start collecting data from enough rivers and streams. The state has ample data only about the San Marcos River, and that's far from sufficient. Every river has its own characteristics, and data from one don't translate to another.

It's in our best interest to know what's going on. Plants and animals filter pollutants out of our rivers. I don't know about you, but I don't like stuff creeping out of my faucet.

It will take time to get ample data. Scientists have to study rivers in wet and dry times. And no one can rush the seasons.

A thorough study will take money, too. And that's the clue to follow when legislators gather again in 14 months. If they don't fork over the $5 million or so needed to study rivers over the next five years, you'll know Austin is not serious about finding answers.

Meanwhile, there is room to cheer. The issue hasn't gone away. And key leaders are picking up on it.

They appear to be zeroing in on our man/nature conflict, which is a product of our success. Cities are growing. Suburbs are booming. Markets are hopping. That's great for the state. But all that activity requires water - and plenty of it.

William McKenzie is a Dallas Morning News editorial columnist. His e-mail address is wmckenzie@dallasnews.com.

Copyright 2005 The Dallas Morning News