Mastering the Brazos River basin’s water needs

Two entirely different organizations with different roles, the Brazos Watermaster’s Office and the Brazos River Authority (BRA), now coordinate closely while managing surface water use within the Brazos River basin. The BRA focuses on its water rights and its customer’s water supply needs while the watermaster closely monitors surface water use by all water right holders in a territory beginning at Possum Kingdom Lake and stretching to the Gulf of Mexico.

The watermaster’s office, led by Molly Mohler and based in Waco, began official operations in 2015. It is part of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and was established through a provision of the Texas Water Code. The Brazos watermaster’s jurisdiction includes 41 Texas counties, ranging from Stephens and Palo Pinto counties in the north and west to Fort Bend and Brazoria counties in the south and east.

Among the office’s duties are making sure the amount of water used by surface water right holders lines up with what they are authorized to use, monitoring river flow and reservoir levels, protecting the water rights of permit holders, and responding to complaints about unauthorized water use.

Protecting the right to water is no easy task.

“The Brazos Watermaster Office manages surface water-right diversions and monitors on-the-ground activities daily,” Mohler said. “Water right holders within our jurisdiction are required to contact our office prior to turning their pumps on to divert water. This enables us to manage diversions throughout the basin based on priority.”

When the program began, the watermaster had five field deputies working out of offices in Stephenville, Waco and Angleton, but the basin’s needs have resulted in expansion. The deputies serve as the “boots on the ground” to investigate any concerns and verify that water use matches what is allowed by the state-issued permits.

TCEQ Commissioners in late 2017 approved the addition of three full-time employees for the Brazos Watermaster’s Office, Mohler said.

“Once fully staffed, the program will have one deputy stationed out of the TCEQ Fort Worth office, one deputy out of Stephenville, two deputies in the Waco office, one in College Station, and one in Angleton,” Mohler said. “Additionally, the program will have two administrative assistants, an assistant watermaster, and the watermaster all located in Waco.”

Though often mistaken for the same organization, the BRA and the Brazos River Watermaster are two different organizations and are not affiliated. The Watermaster Office is a regulatory agency overseeing all surface water rights within the Brazos watermaster area. The BRA is not a regulatory agency itself but falls under the jurisdiction of the watermaster. Water use under all of BRA’s water right permits is regulated by the watermaster. Being a large permit holder does not exempt the BRA from the water use rules being implemented by the watermaster.

“As a state water permit holder, the Brazos River Authority contracts with cities, industry and agriculture customers to supply water for beneficial use,” said Brad Brunett, water services manager for the BRA. “The water that we supply to our customers is provided under our state-issued water right permits, and just like every other water permit holder in the Brazos watermaster area, we are required to account for how much water our customers use and report those amounts to the watermaster. The implementation of the watermaster program has resulted in significant changes to the way we account for water use and how we report water use to the state.”

The BRA holds permits for a significant volume of water in the basin, primarily as a result of construction of 11 reservoirs that form the backbone of its water supply system. As such, BRA operations and customer water use are critical to the watermaster. However, there are many other surface water right holders that use water within the Brazos watermaster area. In fact, there are over 900 other water right permits within the Brazos watermaster area that are not affiliated with the BRA.

“Though our accounting system is more complex than it would be for a ranch or farm owner with its own water rights, we are required to maintain and provide the same type of reports that the ranch or farm owner is required to provide the watermaster, just on a larger scale,” Brunett said.

Before the watermaster program began, interaction between the BRA and the TCEQ was far less frequent. The change in reporting required the BRA to reallocate staff positions and staff time to properly collect and report its customer water use information to the watermaster.

“Before the watermaster program was implemented, we used to report water use data to the TCEQ once per year in March,” Brunett said. “There was very little interaction (between the water services department) and TCEQ staff. Now, Julie (Andress, water accounting specialist for the BRA) or Chris (Higgins, senior hydrologist for the BRA) communicate with the watermaster’s office several times each week, and sometimes daily.”

The frequent communications between the watermaster’s office and the BRA help to account for water use by BRA customers throughout the Brazos basin.

“In addition to providing estimates of water our customers plan to use, we also work with their (TCEQ) deputies to verify information,” Andress said.

This information stream between the BRA and the watermaster’s office is constant, Brunett said.

“It’s a never-ending, rolling process reporting what our customers intend to use and what they actually use,” he said.

For the system to work, BRA customers and other water right holders must provide accurate estimates of the amount of water they plan to use.

“They don’t want customers under or overestimating their projected usage, and they have incentives intended to encourage accurate reporting,” Brunett said. “If a customer estimates they’ll pump a certain amount but they actually pump less or not at all without notification, they can be charged for what they estimated even if they did not use it.”

Meters are required to measure water use, and regular meter readings are provided to the watermaster’s office. Higgins said this helps the watermaster’s field deputies to “keep their eyes open for illegal diversions.”

In some cases when water levels are affected by drought, the watermaster can order the BRA to make releases of water from its reservoirs to satisfy the requirements of downstream senior water right holders, Higgins said.

The Brazos watermaster officially began operations in June 2015, and fortunately, plentiful rainfall from 2015-2017 has kept lake and river levels high enough throughout the most of the basin to avoid contentious water right issues and curtailment of water use by the watermaster. That has helped the watermaster staff and all water right holders, including the BRA, adjust to the new regulatory system under favorable conditions.

Higgins noted that there have been growing pains in the transition to the new system.

“It took several months to get to the point where everyone was happy and satisfied with the reporting process,” he said.

According to the Brazos Watermaster Mohler, beyond working with the BRA, establishing the office and working with the basin’s permit holders has been a challenge.

“The Brazos watermaster program covers a large geographic area with several highly complex permits which pose challenges to the office daily,” Mohler said. “Additionally, because of the larger geographic area, it has proven challenging to ensure appropriate coverage throughout the basin; thus the request for additional staff.”

Mohler notes her office and the BRA work well together, and the BRA staff echo this as well.

“BRA and the Brazos Watermaster Office have a positive working relationship,” Mohler said. “Daily coordination between the two entities allows for BRA’s contractual diverters to continue to divert seamlessly with minimal issues. TCEQ appreciates BRA’s cooperation and willingness to work with the program to ensure its success.”

“Although the addition of the watermaster’s office has led to more work and additional costs for water right holders and for the TCEQ … this is a better system for real-time regulation of water rights during drought conditions than the honor system that was previously in place,” Brunett said.

For additional information on the Brazos River Watermaster, go here.