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Waco's Royal Flush — Watershed Issues For Local Government

By Brett Rosenberg
May 10, 2004

A major theme of the 2004 Urban Water Summit focused on managing community water resources at a watershed scale. Through addressing a broad range of issues that affect regional water quality, local governments often can meet several environmental goals more efficiently than more traditional piecemeal approaches. As was apparent during the course of the Urban Water Summit, watershed management holistically incorporates new ideas while remaining flexible enough to address specific local concerns. Furthermore, by taking approaches that involve all of the parties that effect a region's sources of water, from units of local governments to individual property owners, businesses and farmers, the panelists during this session demonstrated that watershed management has broad applications nationwide. In some instances local watershed management initiatives can lead to policy changes at the state level, as occurred in Waco (TX).

Waco Mayor Linda Ethridge led the watershed management session with a presentation outlining the steps her city has taken to overcome the challenges posed by large dairy cow facilities, known as confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. The Waco region, with its CAFOs, is home to over 46,000 dairy cows, which produce 2,760 tons of manure every day. Oftentimes, especially during and immediately after storms, runoff from poorly maintained waste lagoons containing manure, sediments, and other unhealthy material enter the North Bosque River and Lake Waco — the region's sole public water supply. Such runoff can overwhelm water treatment systems and contribute harmful microorganisms and excessive nutrients such as phosphorus to Lake Waco, causing unsightly and unhealthy algae blooms. As algae die and decompose, dissolved oxygen levels in the lake decline, bringing about severely reduced water quality readily apparent by the water's foul appearance, taste and odor.

Waco and Ethridge have tried for years to find new ways to protect and enhance the region's water supply. They have often found their efforts stymied by the lack of political will on the part of the state legislature and the Texas Department of Environmental Quality (TCEQ), as well as some of the CAFO owners in the Basque River watershed.

As time went on and the problems intensified, however, Ethridge was able to reach out to the Texas State Legislature and TCEQ to encourage legislation and policies that are more protective of drinking water sources, such as individual permits for CAFOs and soil phosphorus limits in areas where manure is applied to fields as a fertilizer. In addition, other watershed'scale strategies included building coalitions of state and federal agencies and elected officials, agricultural interests, downstream interests and property owners. Working together, these partnerships have more effectively protected Waco's water resources than more prescriptive and piecemeal strategies had before the community took a broad, watershed approach. In the few instances where policy and partnerships have not been so effective, Waco has resorted to legal remedies.

In spite of Waco's success with watershed management, it has been an ongoing process of educating the public, acquiring financial resources and keeping state regulators apprised of the region's needs. Among the biggest challenges has been formalizing consistent watershed management practices with the TCEQ. While the agency was ultimately very cooperative, there were often disparities between agency staff in which computer models of applying manure to fields and the resulting nutrient loading to the watershed differed from the actual practices, often adding much more manure than the watershed could handle. Ethridge noted that it is imperative for cities within a watershed to think and act on a watershed scale to resolve such problems.

Meanwhile, Waco's water is slowly becoming cleaner. The city, with the assistance of the Army Corps of Engineers, has added capacity to Lake Waco by raising the pool level, and with the help of other federal agencies and Baylor University, has initiated a long-term comprehensive study of impacts to the watershed. In addition, a new wetlands area in the lake has contributed further to higher quality water. These, along with broad, regional approaches to maintaining a clean, healthy water supply, are what it takes to realize environmental goals. As Ethridge put it, watershed management is "not rocket science — it's about keeping waste from the water supply."