Reeling

Bass kills and lesions on fish worry Sam Rayburn anglers. So does the state's plan to lower the lake's pollution standards.

Last August TPWD senior director of aquatic resources Larry McKinney offered the TNRCC preliminary comments on the proposed standards revisions. Noting that no definitive cause for the fish kills and disease in Rayburn had been identified, McKinney wrote that "it would be imprudent to lower the standard until these issues are further investigated and resolved." Until that time, he wrote, "we are strongly opposed to the proposed downgrade."

Aquatic scientist Charles Bayer of the TNRCC offered an explanation why Parks and Wildlife would make such unequivocal statements opposing standards downgrades while (with the exception of English) his agency seemed headed in the opposite direction. "They're the resource agency, and we're the permitting agency, when it comes down to it," Bayer says.

But the TPWD's latest messages have been mixed. In a March 7 meeting held with Ed Parten and other representatives from angler groups to discuss Rayburn, McKinney and TPWD executive director Andy Sansom told the assemblage they were against the proposed downgrade and any others in the state -- at least according to the anglers. "[McKinney] told me that Parks and Wildlife was opposed to lowering water quality standards on Sam Rayburn and any other body of water," recalls Dave Stewart, president of two Texas bass fishing organizations.

The week before the department issued its final comments on the changes, McKinney told the Press he had been speaking universally, not specifically about Rayburn. "In a general sense, lowering water quality standards is something we are opposed to." Although the department may oppose the changes for other reasons, McKinney said, "we are not likely to oppose it on water quality grounds."

Asked moments later why he was apparently reversing the position he put on paper firmly in August, McKinney denied making the statement. Challenged, he moved onto even murkier ground. "If I did," said McKinney, "I misspoke."

He didn't misspeak. While the final comments don't approve of the downgrade, they don't outright oppose it, either. Citing both the English memo and the Labay letter, the TPWD stated that the information provided by Donohue had several deficiencies that collectively argued for caution. "The downgrade may or may not be appropriate," the comments say. "The information is not adequate to make that determination." The comments then offer several compromise positions, such as making the standard change temporary pending further review.

More than anything, McKinney's odd ping-pong act reflects the political reality of the issue: No matter what position the TPWD or any other agency takes, a lot of people are going to be angry, and repercussions are inevitable. The proposed standards changes cover the entire gamut of water quality regulations laid out in two thick volumes, few of which concern Rayburn. But most of the attention has been focused on the handful that deal with the lake. At a packed March 21 meeting in Austin to hear public comment on the whole package, almost every speaker talked about Rayburn. "This is a delicate situation," McKinney said glumly.

Evidence of its delicacy abounds. Three TNRCC sources say that politics played a role in the process, though they could not speak on the record. Documents that may shed light on the internal debate were withheld from the Press as privileged in response to an Open Records Act request.

But a description of those documents, with references to "sensitive matters" and "the pros and cons of various options," suggests that the ramifications of any position the TNRCC might take were well understood. "This [document] represents the author's characterization of what has transpired throughout the process of evaluating Donohue's proposal," reads one description, "and what is likely to occur under various circumstances."

Whichever way the final decision comes down, the effects may well spread beyond the Texas border. Governor George W. Bush is perceived by many as weak on the environment, and downgrading the standards for Rayburn may be seized upon by Democrats in his presidential race as yet another example. Conversely, rejecting the standard change (if Donohue is telling the truth) will result in the mill shutting down and economic grief for the region, a move that might not be justified by the existing data. In addition, Donohue recently announced a pending consolidation with Canadian paper giant Abitibi-Consolidated in a deal valued at $7.1 billion, and the outcome of the standards wrangle could have an impact on the negotiations.

One solution to the dilemma seems obvious: Collect more data, since what little data exists is decidedly mixed. But although the various agencies with a dog in the fight have had ample opportunity to study the issues in detail, relatively little has been done since Champion first proposed the standards revisions years ago. The Champion studies were based on a limited number of samples, but no independent inquiry has been done to double-check their findings. The TNRCC's draft list of polluted water bodies is based on just a few test results, but the agency hasn't conducted enough research to determine the true extent of any water quality problems.

As is often the case with the TNRCC, the problem is not the will, but the way. The agency is strapped for resources and doesn't have the ability to fund expensive studies or to embark on an ambitious data collection project. "We'd always like more data," says water quality team leader Davenport. "That's true not just for Sam Rayburn, but statewide."

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