CORPUS CHRISTI CALLER-TIMES

Corpus Christi court case centered on whooping cranes, water underway

Dec 6, 2011 | Corpus Christi Caller-Times by Mark Collette | TAP In The News

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Lawsuit claims Texas Commission on Environmental Quality violated Endangered Species Act

CORPUS CHRISTI — A federal trial that could have profound effects on Texas’ management of surface water used for drinking, agriculture and industry started Monday morning in Corpus Christi, and one rare bird — the endangered whooping crane — was the center of attention.

The outcome of the case could change the way Texas balances the rights of water users with the health of the environment, or it could affirm the water permitting process already in place under state law.

“It’s a very interesting case to me,” U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack told more than a dozen lawyers in her courtroom. “My husband and I are birders, so we also like the whooping cranes and appreciate what they do for the area.”

The Aransas Project, a nonprofit group of local governments, advocacy groups and tourism-dependent businesses in the Coastal Bend, filed a federal lawsuit last year claiming the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality violated the Endangered Species Act by not providing adequate freshwater flow from the rivers into San Antonio Bay.

The organization claims the commission’s mismanagement altered the salt content of the bay, wreaking havoc with crabs, wolfberries and other food sources, and killing 23 members of the only naturally occurring wild flock of whooping cranes. The birds spend each winter at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

To protect the birds, the Aransas Project wants the state to create a new plan for managing withdrawals from the Guadalupe and San Antonio river systems. The river water is used by cities including San Antonio, and by farmers, industries and other private property owners. Water rights holders pay for the lawful removal of river water.

Aransas Project attorney Jim Blackburn said the Guadalupe River has been over-allocated to the point that if all the water held by rights holders was to be removed, the river would run dry. Blackburn said the Texas Legislature has refused to address this issue, despite burgeoning water demands, a growing population and the threat of prolonged drought.

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