Intimately entwined with Texas history, the Brazos River Basin stretches from New Mexico to the Gulf of Mexico, with the high Brazos emerging as a stream in the Caprock of West Texas and the lower Brazos winding through the bottomlands and prairies of the Texas coast. The Columbia Bottomlands-Brazos River Project seeks to bring public and private partners together to conserve this special river and the abundant life it supports. By working directly with private landowners in the region, the program hopes to encourage and facilitate conservation, restoration and sustainable development practices within this unique watershed.
Along its meandering course through coastal Texas, the lower Brazos River, and its connected network of natural levees, oxbow lakes and floodplain wetlands, possess varied and important aquatic habitat types and harbor numerous rare species of fish, mollusks and crayfish. Its greater watershed—and the surrounding Columbia Bottomlands ecosystem—provides critical terrestrial habitat for a number of species, while neotropical migrant songbirds fill the sky overhead on their migration from the Gulf of Mexico to interior Texas and beyond. The bottomland hardwood forests—including some old growth forests—and coastal prairies within the watershed provide critical habitat for migratory and grassland birds.
In addition, the river, through its densely vegetated waterways and seasonally variable flow, provide many ecosystem services to the communities of the region including water quality, fishing, recreation and water supply. The densely vegetated waterways also filter and slow water drainage, producing the fluctuating freshwater flows in the main stem of the Brazos. The flow of fresh water from the Brazos to the Gulf of Mexico helps maintain the biological diversity and quality of life of gulf coastal communities.
The Columbia Bottomlands-Brazos River Project conserves a region intrinsically tied to the birth of the Republic of Texas and the state’s eventual inclusion into the United States. The lower Brazos River begins near San Felipe, the site of Stephan F. Austin’s Colonial Capital of Texas, runs to Washington-on-the-Brazos, where delegates signed the Texas Declaration of Independence and drafted the Constitution of the Republic of Texas in 1836 and ends near West Columbia—the first Capital of Texas where the inaugural Congress of the Republic of Texas was convened.
When taken together, the river, its habitats, the ecosystem services it provides, its place in history as the “Cradle of Texas” and the staggering profusion of aquatic and terrestrial life within the watershed virtually define the Columbia Bottomlands.
A Resource at Risk
The flows and flooding cycles of the Brazos River—the natural functions of the river that sustain aquatic life and nourish coastal marshes and estuaries—are largely interrupted by water extraction and flood control throughout the river basin. This interruption has significantly impacted many aquatic species important to the river. In addition, urban development, land fragmentation, agricultural runoff, industrial discharge and unregulated sand and gravel mining have had an influence on quantity and quality of water within the river.
The primary threat to the ecological integrity of the lower Brazos is its proximity to Houston’s suburban expansion, particularly in Fort Bend County, which is experiencing unprecedented housing and commercial development. Many of these developments fragment and denude habitat along the river, increasing bank-side erosion and nutrient inputs, and diminishing the river’s ecological function and services.
Another major issue for the health of the lower Brazos River is water management throughout the river drainage. If not managed sustainably, the results could include reduced river flow, alterations in the river’s ecology, and reduced water supply and water quality. Other threats to the river include the spread of invasive species, freshwater pollution, fragmentation of family and heritage lands, channelization of rivers and streams for drainage, conversion of woodlands to pasture, development in flood-prone areas and ecological destabilization stemming from climate change.
Cooperative Conservation Solutions
In partnership with Houston Endowment, The Nature Conservancy and Texas River Systems Institute plan to address these multiple threats and assess their impact on the Brazos River and the watershed’s rich aquatic and terrestrial wildlife. The groups will work jointly to combine applied aquatic conservation science with on-the-ground conservation action, such as land acquisition, habitat restoration, stewardship, restoration of ecological flows and landowner outreach.
Through the Columbia Bottomlands/Brazos River Project, the Conservancy hopes to create and foster community-based networks that increasing public awareness of the important services the river provides and the urgent need for conservation. Engaging local stakeholders in the conservation process will help combat the threats posed by the spread of invasive species and will increase the awareness and use of best management practices among land managers within the watershed.