Men's Breakfast Report, August 2008

The Men’s Breakfast Group met Saturday, August 9 with Carolyn Johnson, assistant presiding officer of the Brazos River Authority.  Carolyn was raised in Freeport right in view of Dow Plant A.  She was the last Valedictorian of Lanier High School just before integration.  She went to San Marcos College where she got a degree in chemistry.  She then went to work for Dow, becoming a group leader in Environmental Services and Dow’s expert on water and waste water.  This qualification led her to being appointed to the Brazos River Authority by the Governor of Texas. 

The Brazos River Authority is a 21-member body appointed by the Governor.  It governs the operation of the Brazos River and its tributaries.  Responsibilities include environmental monitoring, water treatment, and water rights allocation.  The Authority runs several treatment plants, including the local Brazosport Water Authority plant.  It also manages, in connection with other entities such as the Corps of Engineers, several flood control and water supply lakes in the watershed.  Water supply lakes can produce complaints from recreational users since the lakes are drawn very far down in the summer as is required for their designed use. 

The most important and potentially contentious responsibility is water allocation.  Since Texas has the doctrine of capture, the first user of the water has perpetual rights to it.  This means that some users have claims that predate the formation of the water authority and have senior claims to the water that must be satisfied before anybody else can take any.  Dow Chemical Company is one of these senior claim holders with its rights dating to 1926.  Dow has sold some of its rights to the Brazosport Water Authority for the very generous price of $1.  This means that the local cities of Clute, Lake Jackson and Freeport will have water even if other cities, such as Houston, go dry.  The River Authority owns the rights to the water that was not already claimed at its formation.  It now sells this water for $54 per acre foot.  There are several old long-term contracts for much less than this that will eventually expire.  Not all the water has been sold so the Brazos, unlike the Colorado or the Rio Grande, does reach the ocean.

Some of the water is necessary for environmental purposes, such as maintaining proper salinity in the bays so fish and shrimp can breed.  The biologists are trying to determine what this amount is.  The problem is that different species need different amounts at different times of the year.  A flow regimen that is optimal for redfish may be bad for shrimp.  The natural flow produces variability so some years are good for one species and other years are good for other species.  The plan is to allocate some of the water to the environment and sell only what is left.  The problem is how much water this should be and can the fish compete with thirsty cities. 

Most of the water taken from the Brazos by cities and industries is returned as treated waste water.  Two exceptions are the cities of Galveston and Houston, which send their waste water directly to the Gulf or the Ship Channel.  Since most of the water is returned to the river it can be reused.  A controversy that has arisen is the use of this waste water.  Upstream cities like Waco claim that if they take water from the river below their waste water treatment plant that this is the same water they have already paid for and don’t need to buy it again.  The River Authority says that this is a new withdrawal and must be paid for.  Downstream users support the Authority because the upstream waste water is an important part of the flow and they need this water for their drinking water.  Ironically, the upstream cities could just send their waste water directly to their drinking water plant without paying anything, but the ick factor prevents them from doing this. 

With the expected growth in the Texas population greater demands will be made on the water supplies.  Houston will need more water and there are plans to build a new reservoir to help supply this.  The demands on the water supply may cause problems with the river flow.  Already there are problems with the salt tongue moving up past the intake to the Brazoria reservoir,causing the Brazosport Water Authority to take water from the Harris reservoir during the summer, producing complaints about the taste of the water.  A solution to this that has been discussed is to build a dam or barrier near the mouth of the river to prevent the salt water from going up the river. We discussed desalinization, a long-term solution. Freeport had an experimental desalinization plant in the sixties but it was expensive to operate.  Modern methods of desalinization are much cheaper but still expensive.  The problem is that desalinization requires energy and the cost of energy is increasing at least as fast as the cost of water, putting desalinization further in the future. 

As usual, the men had an interesting discussion and a good breakfast.  Our next meeting is Saturday, September 13 and all men are invited.