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IS YOUR WATER CLEAN? EXAMINING THE QUALITY OF BRAZOS LAKES, STREAMS

When you hear reports of water pollution, you may imagine a factory pipe dumping slop into water or you may picture someone’s discarded fast food wrapper and cup floating down the river. You probably wouldn’t think of an automatic sprinkler system in a suburban neighborhood or a fresh spring bubbling up through the ground and flowing into a slow moving river.

These scenarios are extremely different, yet each of them could cause your drinking water to be unusable. Texas Legislators tasked the Brazos River Authority with making water quantity reliable; however, ensuring the quality of that water is no less important.

The Texas Clean Rivers Act was passed in 1991 and recognized that various water pollution concerns constituted a threat to our water supply. Through the act, Texas Legislators set measures to plan, safeguard and manage the state’s water.

To address water quality threats, the Clean Rivers Act requires ongoing evaluations of water quality issues including natural and man-made pollution, as well as the development of management plans to guide Texas water resources policy in the future. The act established the Texas Clean Rivers Program (CRP) under the Texas Water Commission, now the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).

As part of the Clean Rivers program, the BRA monitors water quality in streams, lakes and other water bodies across the Brazos River basin and reports its findings to state environmental officials. Reports are compiled every five years and provide an intensive analysis of water quality data compiled from across the Brazos basin.

Over the last several months, the BRA has completed and released the CRP 2012 Basin Summary Report, identifying areas within the basin’s 14 major watersheds where water quality is a concern and providing areas where additional detailed analysis or information to better assess water quality is needed. The report includes maps of monitored water bodies and stream segments along with a discussion of any local water quality issues and the potential causes of those issues.

Surprisingly, the 2012 report finds the largest water quality problem facing the Brazos basin is not man made. Rather, the largest problem with water within the Brazos basin is salt. Salt or chlorides enter the Brazos water system naturally. In the northernmost portion of the basin, a salt dome, thought to be the remnant of a prehistoric sea, is located underground in a vast aquifer of water. The aquifer releases up to 1,000 tons of chlorides each day into the Salt Fork of the Brazos River through springs and seeps.

On the southernmost portion of the basin, chlorides encroach on the Brazos through intrusion from the Gulf of Mexico – basically salt water from the Gulf of Mexico that moves up into the riverbed when flows of fresh water are low to due drought conditions. In both areas, though the salt is naturally occurring, utilizing water with high levels of chlorides for agriculturale and municipal uses is problematic, requiring specialized water treatment.

In addition to identifying salinity issues, the 2012 Basin Summary Report determined that bacteria and nutrients are an issue in about a fourth of the basin’s stream segments; potentially affecting whether water is safe for recreational activities such as swimming, canoeing and tubing. The BRA is assisting the TCEQ in completing Recreation Use Attainability Analyses on these streams to determine the safety levels for recreational use and develop water quality standards for nutrients.

Nutrients occur naturally in the environment and are the elements that aid in the growth of plant life. However, nutrients may unintentionally be added to the water system through over application of fertilizers to farming fields and lawns. Rainfall and irrigation wash surplus fertilizers into the water system, resulting in excessive plant and algae growth that can deplete oxygen available for fish and cause taste and odor issues in our drinking water.

To learn more about the Clean Rivers Program, including how to get involved, go to this link