by Scott Zesch
Landowners in the western Hill Country have been alarmed by recent reports that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is re-classifying certain non-navigable streams as navigable, thereby converting private property to state land and opening it to the public. These issues are confusing, because navigable streams and private property involve two separate and long-established sets of legal rights that sometimes conflict with each other.
Since 1837, Texas statutes have deemed a stream to be navigable so far as it retains an average width of 30 feet from the mouth up. A state agency such as TCEQ cannot arbitrarily re-designate a non-navigable stream as navigable. Rather, it can only determine whether a particular stream meets this statutory definition of “navigable.”
For landowners, this classification is critical because Texas law grants the public a right to use navigable streams up to the gradient boundary. This right of free use and movement, which dates back to the 1830s, encompasses more than just commercial navigation; a Texas court expressly approved recreation as a lawful use of navigable streams as early as 1917. In contrast, the public has no right to use non-navigable streams on private property.
Some of the older survey lines in Texas extended across the beds of smaller waterways rather than stopping at the bank, so that the landowners hold title to the streambeds as part of their property. Ordinarily, the bedrock of private property rights is the right to exclude. However, Texas cases and statutes have long established that the landowner’s property rights in the bed of a navigable stream do not trump the public’s conflicting navigation rights. One appellate court explained in 1981 that owners of streambeds “cannot unreasonably impair the public’s rights of navigation and access to and enjoyment of a navigable water course.”
At the same time, a state agency’s determination that a stream is navigable does not transform a privately-owned streambed into state land. The Texas legislature validated these trans-stream survey lines in 1929, so that landowners who hold title to a streambed retain many property rights in it. Nonetheless, that portion of their private property is burdened by the public’s longstanding right to use navigable streams.
Finally, members of the public cannot cross private property to access a navigable stream. They can only do so from public land (usually a road) adjacent to the stream.
Use of Stream-bed
Under Texas Law, a stream is considered public if it is navigable in fact or navigable by statute, the latter referring to any stream that retains an average width of 30 feet from the mouth up. As the entire stream-bed is considered in calculating width, there is no distinction made as to whether the stream is dry. During the original survey of Texas in the 1840s, John Borden, the first commissioner of the Texas General Land Office, instructed surveyors to not extend survey lines across navigable waterways. As a result, in many rivers in the state, such as the Llano, the stream-beds are owned by the state, in trust for the public. However, on many smaller waterways, including the James, survey lines were extended across the stream-bed. [ii]
In 1929, in an attempt to remedy some of the confusion resulting from survey lines crossing navigable waterways, the State passed the Small Bill that validated these surveys. [iii] However, the Small Bill noted that such validation did not impair the rights of the general public and the state in the waters of the streams. Such rights include navigation. So even if a landowner's deed includes the bed of a navigable stream, the public retains its right to use it as a navigable stream. [iv]
In addition, the state lays claim to any water within a defined watercourse. The Texas Administrative Code defines a watercourse as “a definite channel of a stream in which water flows within a defined bed and banks...” [v] Waters of the state require requires a water rights permit from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. [vi] Under the Small Bill, the state also retains possession of the sand and gravel found in the stream-beds. Consequently, the removal or disturbance of this material may require a permit issued by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. [vii]
By Caroline Runge, Manager Menard County Water control and Improvement District No. 1
For the past couple of months rumors have been floating around that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is planning to re-classify creeks and streams in the western Hill Country as navigable streams.
Last week we learned that they have already done so in Kimble County.
A rancher on Bear Creek let us know that he had been issued a citation, setting a fine for having a dam on the creek and ordering him to tear it out within days. He protested that the dam had been there for generations, and the creek is private property.
Not so, said TCEQ personnel, informing him that Bear Creek had been re-classified as a navigable stream on September 3rd.
The significance of re-classification is that the stream beds of navigable rivers belong to the state; the beds of non-navigable streams are private property and belong to the owner of the land through which the stream runs.
This distinction dates from the early history of the United States when rivers were a primary means of transport of goods, and the state prevented obstructions in the rivers to protect and promote commerce.
The early law cases required that a river be “navigable in fact” – that is, that it really could float a commercial boat.
By the 1920’s and ‘30’s, when the Federal government and the states felt that water resources more under government control, the definition of navigable underwent a series of changes.
Now a stream can be declared navigable in Texas if the stream bed is 30 feet wide from cut bank to cut bank (the technical term is “gradient boundary’). That doesn’t mean that the water has to be 30 feet wide – only the bed of the stream.
Many streambeds in this area have been widened to 30 feet by the occasional flood, though their normal condition may be only a trickle through the streambed.
A call to the General Land Office, which has jurisdiction over state lands, confirmed that the TCEQ is looking at re-classifying streams in Menard, Mason, McCulloch and Kimble Counties.
There are several serious concerns with re-classification.
If carried out to the extent proposed, it converts thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of acres in the Edwards Plateau region from private property to state property.
And once the streambeds are state property, the ranches they cross are open to free access by the public. Any place a creek crosses a county road, for instance, anyone can walk or boat from that point up the streambed through the ranch.
The main reason people buy ranches these days is to have privacy and a place that the public can’t access, so the re-classification may have a very negative impact on values of properties that have streams.
Another issue is the due process aspect of re-classifying the streambed with no notice to landowners that their land is being taken by the state – a total violation of constitutional principles of law.
And to assess a fine and demand that the property owner tear out the dam without his having been given prior notice that the land is no longer deemed private further violates all notions of due process.
Finally, there is a legal question of whether the land can be declared state property before it has been surveyed and the boundaries defined by the General Land Office.
We need answers about how and why this is happening and who authorized it.
The western Hill country is affected now; if unchecked, it won’t be long before it spreads everywhere in the state where surface water resources are scarce.
TCEQ Response to "TCEQ Takes Private Property Without Notice Or Hearing"
Zak Covar, Executive Director, TCEQ
Last week's Menard News and Messenger contained an op-ed, “TCEQ Takes Private Property Without Notice or Hearing,” that contains misleading and incorrect allegations of TCEQ taking private property without due process in Kimble County. The TCEQ would like to respectfully provide additional information to help fully understand the facts of this case.
In the West Bear Creek case cited in the article, the TCEQ initiated an investigation based on an anonymous citizen compliant. The complaint alleged an unauthorized impoundment of state water. An on-site investigation was conducted where an on-stream dam and impoundment were observed and documented. TCEQ records were reviewed for the presence of an active water rights permit authorizing the impoundment of state water. No authorization for the impoundment was found.
Following protocol, TCEQ requested assistance in confirming the navigability of the stream segment from the General Land Office (GLO). The GLO reviewed historical mapping of the stream and other official state records on file for many years. Based on this information, the GLO concluded that the stream segment in question met the definition of a navigable stream. This conclusion did not "reclassify" the stream segment as indicated in the article. Rather the TCEQ was simply verifying the existing navigability status of the segment as part its investigation protocol.
After all information was gathered and evaluated, the TCEQ issued a citation to the responsible party in the West Bear Creek case for impounding state water without a required permit. The TCEQ also offered the responsible party the option of obtaining a water permit to authorize the impoundment of state water. Rather than contesting the assessment of this penalty by requesting an administrative hearing, the responsible party chose to sign the field citation, paid the $875 penalty and then removed the dam. Based on these facts, the complaint investigation is in the process of being closed.
TCEQ takes private property rights seriously and enforces state law and rules accordingly. In this case, no reclassification of navigability status, and no taking of privateproperty occurred.
Sky has been selected to receive a “Lone Star Land Steward Award” for her work in education and outreach for the Nueces River Authority in Uvalde County. “Sky Lewey is a conservation educator with extraordinary leadership and dedication. A key figure in the efforts to restore healthy riparian function to the Nueces River Basin and beyond.” David Langford, HCA Advisor, and his wife Myrna are also receiving an award for their landowner cooperative in Kendall County. Congratulations HCA leaders! Read more from TPWD.
"Keeping Rivers Flowing" is a free three-part webinar series designed to inform interested persons about strategies to ensure the future health of Texas' rivers, bays and estuaries. Drawing on practical experience from here in Texas and around the world, speakers will discuss innovative approaches for ensuring that rivers, bays and estuaries continue to get the flow needed to protect water quality and support healthy fish and wildlife populations. Learn More
Bat Conservation International has inspired major support to prevent intense development of 1500 acres adjacent to Bracken Cave from the City of San Antonio, Mayor Julian Castro, City Councilman Ron Nirenberg, The Kronkosky Charitable Foundation and others. Find out more about recent negotiations to save the cave and learn about upcoming opportunities to personally visit Bracken Bat Cave and see the bats take flight.
How many times have you heard that the Hill Country was once a great vast grassland with only a modest covering of trees and brush? Although this longstanding myth is deeply ingrained and embraced by many government agencies, biologists, landowners and professionals, it is false and misleading. Learn what the Hill Country was really like prior to 1860 from eye-witness accounts, and why it is important to understand the past. Read and share from Steve Nelle.
“The rules require residential developers to use only drought-resistant plants from a list provided by the city. St. Augustine grass, which tends to be very thirsty, can only be planted in areas where there is 10 inches of topsoil and less than 6 hours of full sunlight per day.” Read more from the American Statesman (subscription required). Learn more about St. Augustine and the impact lawn watering has on our regional water supply from Native American Seed here. KXAN reports “more buyers want homes with smaller yards and less grass to water.” View video here.
The fact is the city’s sprawling suburbs, gated communities and ex-urban neighborhoods are addicted to lawn and landscape watering. SAWS officials say about one-third of all the water we use in the hot summer months is pumped to keep grass alive. Not humans, but grass. Learn More
The Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) has developed a new Interactive 2012 State Water Plan webpage that will let water users statewide take an up-close look at data in the 2012 State Water Plan and how our water needs will change over time. This data will arm communities with important information as they plan for projects to submit for State Water Implementation Fund (SWIFT) funding. Learn More
It started when the Kimble County Commissioners Court, followed by the City Council, passed resolutions supporting voluntary efforts to protect the Night Skies. This paralleled actions being taken in other Hill Country communities to preserve the awe-inspiring Night Skies and the enjoyment that comes with stargazing, including its attraction for visitors. Read more from the Junction Eagle.
HCA’s March 20th Texas Water Symposium generated a crowd of more than 150 to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing the Pedernales River watershed. Landowners, state and local officials and non-profit representatives gathered to explore these issues and the steps being taken to solve them. Learn more from the Fredericksburg Standard. An hour-long version of the event will be aired on Texas Public Radio in select regions Sunday, April 6th at 8pm - Details
Approval of “Prop 6” indirectly transferred $2 billion from the state’s “rainy day” fund into this new State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT) to provide water for “non-rainy” days. But just moving money around doesn’t create water. That’s why what’s happening now at the state’s Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) is so important. Read more from Ken Kramer at TexasLivingWaters.org.
Stay informed about your local Groundwater Conservation District (GCD). The Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District (BSEACD) creates a monthly bulletin full of helpful water conservation information and news. Read the latest edition here. Do you know your local GCD? Do you have a local GCD? If you are unsure, contact HCA and we’ll help you learn.
While we continue to reduce our water use, demands increase every day with new homes of suburbia appearing on the horizon. Each will require more water, with a considerable amount going to establish and maintain hundreds of acres of new turf grass each year. In this region, traditional home lawns typically consume 25 to 35% of the annual treated water. Projecting into the future, new residential yards could require up to 30,000 acre-feet per year by 2040—enough water to meet about 20 percent of Austin’s current demand. Read More
The Texas Wildlife Association provides Distance Learning programs to bring education about our natural world into the classroom via videoconferencing. Discover resources HCA has assembled to help parents and teachers inspire our next generations to be thoughtful stewards of the Hill Country here.
“With growth projected to skyrocket in the Hill Country, GEAA will keep working to make sure that the costs of growth are distributed equitably.” While the SAWS staff recommends new impact fees to fund additional water supplies, development interests are pushing back. Learn More
Do you want to create meaningful experiences that last a lifetime? HCA is offering an Interpretive Guide Training workshop that will help you connect the minds and hearts of your audience to the beauty of nature and the mysteries of history. The four-day workshop will be held April 28-29 and May 5-6. Register now, class size limited. Details
“Intermittent and ephemeral streams provide critical fish habitat out West. They account for 94 percent of Arizona’s streams, according to the EPA, and 88 percent of those in New Mexico.” The same holds true here in the Hill Country as these tributaries feed the Llano, Pedernales, Blanco, Guadalupe and Nueces Rivers. “These streams provide the flow for larger rivers and spawning and rearing habitat for young fish and insects; they also help to determine the quality of downstream habitat for fish.” Read more from the Washington Post.
Today Texans are more aware than ever of the importance of groundwater. As part of ongoing efforts to synthesize and communicate water-related data to scientists, policy makers and the public, the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) recently announced its Water Data for Texas website now includes groundwater data. Learn More
The Capitol Area Metropolitan Planning Organization is currently seeking public input for projects including new roads in the long-ranch plan. Learn more about transportation planning taking place in Burnett, Travis and Hays counties and attend an open house near you.
Scenic America has just released a handy 4-page reference guide to basic facts and figures about billboards. Download the PDF here. Learn more about scenic issues and billboard in the Hill Country here.
While South by Southwest (SXSW) comes to a close in Austin, Texas' bat season is just beginning. That's right, the Mexican free-tailed bats have begun their northward migration. To celebrate, here's a little "Q&A" to help answer any questions you may have about this awesome spring event. Learn more from Bat Conservation International.
Meet Dr. Katherine Lieberknecht. She is a professor in the University of Texas School of Architecture who proposes the revolutionary idea that stormwater runoff can – and should – be managed as a water resource, rather than as nuisance to be drained “away as “efficiently” as practical. Read more from Waterblogue.
Across the parched American West, the long drought has set off a series of fierce legal and political battles over who controls an increasingly dear treasure - water. Read more from the New York Times.
The Hill Country Alliance has set an April 30 deadline for local schools to apply for grants of up to $1,000 to develop or continue water catchment and conservation programs. The auction of “art barrels” during the Alliance’s annual Rainwater Revival, held in November, funds the grants. Learn more...
Last month, the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club praised staff at the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) for recommending to their Board that the focus of future water supplies for the city should rest on nearby brackish groundwater, rather than the importation of fresh groundwater from locations distant of the city. Unfortunately, the SAWS Board, sensing pressure from the business community, has backpedaled against that recommendation to reject all three of the groundwater proposals. Read more from the Texas Living Waters Project.
Property is a thing. Happiness is an ideal, a story of the future created by the imagination. The American dream, even when it takes material form, is a wish the heart makes in its pursuit of happiness. It is an act of the imagination made vivid by the life and liberty that allow us to pursue it with hope. Read and share one of our timeless favorite pieces by Betty Sue Flowers.
The San Antonio Water System board voted unanimously Tuesday to fund Phase I construction of a brackish water desalination plant in southern Bexar County – the most ambitious water diversification project in the city’s history – and enter negotiations with the Vista Ridge Consortium to provide San Antonio with an even greater supply of new water via a privately-owned regional pipeline, a second diversification project of unprecedented scope and cost. Read more from the Rivard Report.
Faucets, Toilets, and Automobiles: Balancing Growth and Sustainability in the Barton Springs Aquifer Region. Join us Friday, April 25th for a day of learning at the Lady Bird Wildflower Center. Click here to learn more and register online.
Nominations are now being accepted for the Preservation Texas, Most Endangered Place list. Some wonderful places in the Hill Country already grace this list including the Spettel Riverside House in Bandera County, The Old Llano County Jail, Hamilton Pool, Scenic Loop-Boerne Stage Corridor and statewide, Texas Dance Halls! The deadline is fast approaching, March 21st, take it upon yourself to nominate an iconic Hill Country treasure. Learn More
April 16 in Canyon Lake - Billboards in Comal County: TxDOT will present findings from a recent inventory of billboards in Comal County - Presented by the League of Women Voters, Comal Area - Details
April 17 in Austin - TWDB will hold two Board meetings to discuss innovative water solutions for Texas and financial assistance for water projects - The public and interested stakeholders encouraged to attend and provide public comment - Details
April 19 in Boerne - Streamside Management: Restoring and Maintaining Riparian Areas - Details
April 22 - Earth Day! - Earth Day Events
April 22 in Austin - Texas Water Journal Forum focusing on current challenges to rural and urban water conservation - Details
April 23-25 in Kerrville - Bennett Trust Educational Program: "Protecting the Legacy of the Edwards Plateau" - Details
April 23-27 - 2014 Hill Country Nature Quest - Tour the Hill Country River Region and learn about native plants, birds, butterflies and wildlife - Details
April 25 in Austin - Kent Butler Summit, “Faucets, Toilets, and Automobiles: Balancing Growth and Sustainability in the Barton Springs Aquifer Region” - Details
April 25-27 in Fredericksburg - 4th Annual Wings over the Hills Nature Festival - Details
April 26 in Austin - Native Plant Spring Symposium - Hosted by The Native Plant Society of Texas and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center - Details
April 28 in Kerrville - Native Bees of Texas - A meeting of the Hill Country Master Naturalist - Free and open to the public - Details
April 30 - Keeping Rivers Flowing: Innovative Strategies to Protect and Restore Rivers - Free three-part webinar series on strategies to ensure the future health of Texas' rivers, bays and estuaries - Details
May 3 in Bandera - 13th Annual Medina River Cleanup - Details
May 6 in Medina - Fruit Tree Management Workshop - Hosted by Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service - Details
May 7 in San Antonio - Public Health and the Built Environment - Healthy Communities by Design - Details
May 8 in San Antonio - Urban Wildlife Management Workshop - Details
May 9 in Boerne - Monarch Workshop: Monarch Biology, Ecology & Monarch Larval Monitoring Project Training - Hosted by the Cibolo Nature Center - Details
May 9 in Stonewall - 2014 New Landowner Series: Forage Production, Livestock Production and Handling, Crop Production - Presented by the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service - Details
May 10 in Wimberley - Grand Opening of the newly improved Jacob's Well Natural Area - Details
May 12 in Fredericksburg - Better Lights for Starry Nights: Learn how to save money, preserve our night skies and enjoy some star gazing! - Hill Country University Center - Details
May 13 in Llano - Better Lights for Starry Nights: Learn how to save money, preserve our night skies and enjoy some star gazing! - Details
May 14 in Marble Falls - Better Lights for Starry Nights: Learn how to save money, preserve our night skies and enjoy some star gazing! - Details
May 16 in Fredericksburg - Better Lights for Starry Nights: Learn how to save money, preserve our night skies and enjoy some star gazing! - Enchanted Rock State Natural Area - Details
May 16 in Austin - Exploring Conservation Design in Central Texas with Randall Arendt - Details
May 28-30 in San Antonio - Southwest Stream Restoration Conference - Details
Photo contest begins March 1st!
Imagine a place where vibrant communities draw strength from their natural assets to sustain their quality of life. A place where citizens care about protecting the special qualities of a region – their region. A place where people and partners band together to envision a better economic future, tackle shared challenges and care for the natural, scenic, and recreational resources that define the place they call home.
~This is a Conservation Landscape
Helpful Mapping Resources - Beautiful and informative maps of the region to print and share.
HCA Dynamic Mapping Tool - Interactive online GIS mapping tool