Aransas Project to sue Texas agency

Dec 9, 2009 | Victoria Advocate by J.J. Velasquez | TAP In The News

ROCKPORT – A day after filing a notice of intent to sue the state, a Houston environmental lawyer said whooping cranes died needlessly.

“We’ve made a scientific determination that the mismanagement of the river by the State of Texas, particularly the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, violates the endangered species law,” said Jim Blackburn. “That law is federal law that protects, among other things, the whooping cranes.”

Blackburn represents The Aransas Project, the environmental alliance that filed the notice of intent on Monday. The group claims the Texas environmental commission mismanaged the Guadalupe River Basin and illegally harmed the endangered birds.

The filing comes on the heels of the deadliest winter for the federally protected birds since 1990, when 11 cranes died from a flock of 146. During the past winter, 23 cranes, or 8.5 percent of the flock, died, according to a press release.

Blackburn said the TCEQ’s permit program on water removal from the Guadalupe River causes harm to the whooping cranes and their habitat.

“There’s no process by which the concerns of the whooping cranes become integrated into the withdrawal and removal of water from the river,” Blackburn said.

Andrea Morrow, spokeswoman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said managing water flows often depends on rainfall. Given this year’s severe drought, many in the area suffered, she said.

“The lack of rainfall has allowed very little recharge to the Guadalupe River,” Morrow said. “The watermaster program of the TCEQ manages these scarce resources closely and curtails, denies or allows diversions as conditions warrant.”

By law, The Aransas Project must wait at least 60 days before filing suit. The group was formed three months ago with the intent to protect Aransas and San Antonio Bay complex water inflows, Blackburn said.

Officials from the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, which manages water bodies in Victoria and surrounding counties, said they might be implicated in the suit, which is expected to be filed in 60 days.

The matter is more complex than a lack of checks on water permits, said LaMarriol Smith, river authority spokeswoman.

Smith pointed to a Texas A&M University study on whooping cranes that stated harsh weather conditions contribute to environmental changes that adversely affect whooping cranes and their habitat.

“Some of The Aransas Project’s verbal accusations are totally unfounded,” Bill West, general manager of the river authority, said.

Long before the intent to sue was filed, Smith said river authority experts took into account ecological concerns, especially with regard to the whooping cranes.

“GBRA has had concerns of securing the health of the bays and estuaries,” Smith said. “We’ve been responsible stewards of that river for years. To suggest that we have no concerns about the whooping cranes, that’s also unfounded.”

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