As the Neches River flows south toward a string of oil refineries and manufacturing plants in Southeast Texas, it winds through an area so ecologically diverse that the National Park Service runs a preserve called Big Thicket along its banks.
Despite recent spring rains, years of drought have caught up to the landscape. In 2011, the driest year in recorded Texas history, part of the river became so stagnant that it turned black.
“You see all those dead trees?” said Kirk Winemiller, who runs an aquatic ecology laboratory at Texas A&M University, pointing from a boat toward bald cypress trees that rose like ghosts along the bank. “They weren’t dead when we came out in 2011.”
Like the Neches, other rivers across Texas have been severely tested by the long-running drought, which still blankets most of the state and comes on top of increasing demands for water from a growing population and industrial base. Average stream-flow measurements are well below normal, especially in western regions, prompting worries about increased salinity and the health of fish and plants. The environmental group American Rivers recently listed the San Saba River in the Hill Country as the country’s third-most-endangered river, because of heavy pumping by farmers.
Six years ago, the Texas government began an effort to manage the rivers’ health better. But environmental advocates fear that ecology still takes a back seat while the state frets about having enough water in the future for its growing cities. And climate change threatens further disruptions.