Friends of the Brazos

Last weekend, my friend Susan Ebert rounded up her writer friends Shannon Tompkins of the Houston Chronicle, Michael Berryhill, former editor of Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine, John Ostdick, the nature writer who used to edit American Airlines' American Way magazine, and me, along with Tyson Broad, a research associate for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club and his wife, Eva, for a campfire discussion and paddle on the Brazos River. Our host was Ed Lowe, who formed the Friends of the Brazos in response to the Brazos River Authority's claim of all water rights on the river, for the purpose of pumping and selling water. Here's the lowdown on the drawdown: John Graves really started it all for me with his book Goodbye to A River, an eloquent piece of literature which saw truth and beauty in the same natural world that the prevailing interests saw as nothing more than a commodity exploit. In anticipation of the damming of the Brazos, Graves took one last canoe trip down the river with his dog. The book, published in 1960, was the finest piece of literature written in Texas during the 20th century. By making it personal, Graves used the river as a metaphor for an essential but too often buried truth about Texas and its sense of place: the crude and the profane, and the splendid and the beautiful reside together side by side, forever, impossibly intertwined.

So it was somehow fitting that this fever about water I’ve been seized with over the last ten years was finally quelled on the banks of the Brazos River. Forty five years after Graves’ classic passionate, eloquent tale was published, sounding a prophetic warning cry about what was to come, I took his advice that “usually, fall is the good time to go to the Brazos” and joined a group of fellow travelers on the banks of the might Brazos.

Since “Goodbye to a River”, two major dams had been built on the Brazos to create Lake Granbury and Lake Whitney. The lakes impacted the plants, fish, birds, and animals that depended on riparian corridors. Still, some stretches between the dams resembled the same river that Graves paddled long ago. There were even a few side benefits. Graves, now 83, allowed how dams weren’t all bad. Far upstream, where the river used to run red and muddy from the get-go, it ran clear and swift coming off the bottom of Possum Kingdom dam. “Of course, the lake is filling in with all that red sediment,” Graves chuckled. “But the river does run clearer.”

Overall, the Brazos had taken as bad a beating as any other Texas river over the past half century. Dumping of effluent, untreated waste, slag from rock mining, and excessive pumping by power plants and other users were fouling the Brazos over its entire 800 mile course across Texas.

The latest insult was the worst of all. The Brazos River Authority, the steward of record that was created in 1929 by the Texas Legislature as the first authority in the United States to conserve, control and develop the water resources of an entire river basin, had applied for any and all water rights to the Brazos in what could be the largest withdrawal of water in Texas history. No environmental impact study had been done. No one had any idea how such massive withdrawals would effect fish, wildlife and riparian habitat. No public hearing would be held. It was a classic Texas water water deal, through and through.

This glaring act of arrogance did not sit well with Ed Lowe, a Dallas restarateur who had a place on the river and loved to canoe the Brazos as much as John Graves did. Lowe formed the non-profit Friends of the Brazos River, hired a lawyer to file a contested case hearing on the BRA’s water right application with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and demanded a public hearing, and hired a hydrology consultant to assess Instream Flows and loudly questioned if any water whatsoever could be pumped from the Brazos, since the river’s water rights had already been over-allocated, reducing stream flow in some spots to a mere trickle.

Lowe persuaded us to come to his place near Glen Rose and join John and Jane Graves around the campfire and hear how it was and how it is. Somewhere late in the evening, I told John Graves my river was the Blanco, that I considered it my church, my sacred spot. “My river is really the Clear Fork of the Trinity,” he replied. “His” river was where he first paddled as a boy and where he and his wife first courted. By the time “Goodbye to a River” was written, the Clear Fork of the Trinity had already began being dammed and channeled thanks to pressure from developers who wanted to build in the Trinity’s floodplain. His telling triggered a long lost memory from my youth in Fort Worth when I followed friends to a hidden area on the Clear Fork and was surprised to find a clear-running swimming hole with a rope swing hanging from a tall pecan. It wasn’t the snaky, grungy river I’d thought it was. But the hole didn’t last long. It was replaced by a strip mall, a “higher, better” use of the land.

“Goodbye To A River” begins like this:
“Usually, fall is the good time to go to the Brazos, and when you can choose, October is the best month—if, for that matter, you choose to go there at all, and most people don’t. Snakes and mosquitoes and ticks are torpid then, maybe gone if frosts have come early, nights are cool and days are blue and yellow and soft of air, and in the spread abundance of even a Texas autumn the shooting and the fishing both overlap and are likely to be good. Scores of kinds of birds, huntable or pleasant to see, pause there in their migration before the later, bitter northers push many of them farther south. Men and women are scarce.
“Most autumns, the water is low from the long, dry summer, and you have to get out from time to time and wade, leading or dragging your boat through trickling shallows from one pool to the long channel-twisted pool below, hanging up occasionally on shuddering bars of quicksand, making six or eight miles in a day’s lazy work, but if you go to the river at all, you tend not to mind. You’re not in a hurry there; you learned long since not to be.”

We were a month late, but the morning after our campfire discussion was one of those perfect fall days like Graves had described. Ed Lowe unloaded four canoes and two kayaks at Squaw Creek just above its confluence with the Paluxy River and the Brazos and we embarked on a lazy paddle downstream. It was the perfect setting to let the doublespeak, the power of industry lobbyists at the Legislature, the killing of rivers through channelization and damming and bad management and pollution, environmental flows, water hustlers, the fixed odds –- all the dissonant noise—flutter away like so many autumn leaves. Fall colors had peaked the week before, but the river banks looked just fine in their new winter coats while the air temperature comfortably hovered around 80 degrees and the sun obligingly remained behind thick banks of low cumulus clouds scudding up from the coast.

The crowds and the bugs were absent, as noted, and the river was running decently. Lowe estimated the rate of release from the dam at Lake Granbury to be around 250 cubic feet per second, much higher than the 30 cfs rate it had averaged all summer. “It’s strange,” Lowe said. “The river authority’s been increasing the release from Thursday to Saturday night the last three weekends and the flow’s been really great.” I pointed out to Lowe that many communities outside Texas, notably Birmingham, Alabama, timed dam releases to accommodate weekend recreational users. Lowe said the Brazos River Authority wouldn’t even consider that. “They don’t care about recreation. They just want to sell water.”

Lowe found out the hard way that the river authority was not the least bit interested in fulfilling its stewardship obligation. Nor was the TCEQ particularly keen in holding public hearings, much less investigating the sorry state of the Brazos’ ecosystem. Despite the inclusion of the words “environmental” and “quality” in its name, the TCEQ practically functioned to benefit the industry it was authorized to regulate, not consumers.

Lowe’s reaction, forming the Friends of the Brazos to fight the power, was another peculiar Texan quality. Handfuls of hard-headed folks have been hunkering down to fight for what was right despite being outnumbered (and outspent and ignored) ever since the Alamo. In this case, those fighting on behalf of water, air, land, and the natural world did so in part because they knew that for all the wrong-headed thinking permeating Texas’ political process, Texas harbored more biotic diversity—more life--within its borders than just about anywhere on the continent. It was worth saving. The four miles from the Tres Rios confluence to upstream of Brazos Point vividly illustrated that, transitioning from west to east as limestone rock bottom and limestone bluffs on the banks gave way to muddy bottom, low muddy banks, and a wider channel on its meander towards the Gulf.

Fly rods were cast, herons, flycatchers, kingfishers and killdeers spotted, and rocks skipped during shore breaks. A bald eagle flapped across the river, its sighting both rewarding and comforting in light of downtown Dallas being seventy miles away. For all the problems plaguing the Brazos, there was a lot worth saving.

After our leisurely paddle, Ed Lowe took us to a spacious brick home high on a bluff above the Brazos, where a group of older people from the Brazos River Conservation Council had gathered on a patio along with John Graves. Tony Goodwin, a gentleman of 70 years, told me his tale of trying to clean up sediment debris from unregulated and unpermitted quarries and rock crushing plants that had turned a stretch of the river upstream into one long mud flat. The laws, Goodwin learned, allowed the rock quarries that had popped up along the Brazos to operate and dump with little or no oversight or inspection. The aggregate industry lobby was very powerful in Austin. The river authority said the debris from the rock crushing operations wasn’t their problem. So did the TCEQ. While the buck was being passed, the once sandy banks of Tony Goodwin’s backyard had been mucked up with more than a foot of muddy slag.

“There’s nobody in charge of this river,” Goodwin said. “Everybody delegates to the TCEQ and the TCEQ said the damage to the river was ‘not under our purview.’ Who’s purview is it under?”

Goodwin was not alone in his consternation. The Brazos River Conservation Council had quickly grown to 300 member and took matters in hand to the point of borrowing airplanes to photograph quarries blatantly dumping into the river. But the only weapon other than outrage that finally got them a fair hearing was the mutual interest of Alice Walton, the owner of a cutting horse ranch on the Brazos, and a person of considerable influence and grace (www.freeweekly.com/freeweekly012606/feature.php). She too had seen what the rock crushing slag had done to her part of the river and lent her support, which was considerable. Alice Walton was an heir to the Wal-Mart fortunes, and had been cited by Forbes magazine as the wealthiest woman in the world. When she picked up the phone to speak with Governor Rick Perry, Perry answered. In short order, the TCEQ contacted the BRCC, the attorney general closed down one mine and state leadership helped write and pass Senate Bill 1354 that would mandate cleanup in Palo Pinto and Parker counties along the “John Graves Scenic Riverway of the Brazos” by 2006 but nowhere else in Texas (a stipulation demanded by industry lobbyists) and establish rules and regulations of such operations.
For all the good deeds the citizens group had achieved, Larry Jones, one of the BRCC’s board members, said, “It’s a sad day when a bunch of old gray heads have to do the work of the state agencies.”
The state might not have acted at all if not for blatant violations of Section 404 the federal Clean Water Act that had been committed by the rock quarries. Whatever the circumstances, the once-sacred Rio de Los Brazos de Dios was being defiled beyond recognition and it was the locals who were providing the help.
My nickel advice to the Friends of the Brazos and the Brazos River Conservation Council focused on identifying and getting to know other like-minded groups on the river and letting the public know what was going on. People needed to learn to love a place before they’d fight for it. Even those who will never see the Brazos needed to know what it was, what it meant, what it provided to everyone and how it was being hurt. Anyone who turned on a water faucet was a stakeholder.

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