End arrogance in water policy

Mar 15, 2010 | San Antonio Express-News by Veronica Flores-Paniagua | TAP In The News

It’s hard to ignore 57 dead birds. That’s how many endangered whooping cranes died in the drought-stricken 2008-2009 winter season. It’s even harder to say their deaths aren’t worth re-thinking how we consume water.

Yet that’s the line Texas is drawing in the sand with its reluctance to change the way it manages the San Antonio and Guadalupe rivers so enough fresh water reaches the San Antonio Bay system to keep it healthy.

There’s significant evidence that reduced river inflows decimated the cranes’ food supply and contributed to the record mortality. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality disagrees. As far as the agency is concerned, nothing is broken, and so its water-rights permitting process doesn’t need to be fixed. With a federal lawsuit invoking the Endangered Species Act to protect the whooping crane, Texas may not have a choice.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday, is treading familiar ground. A 1991 Sierra Club federal lawsuit that sought to save endangered species in the San Marcos and Comal springs curbed largely unrestricted pumping from the Edwards Aquifer. While the lawsuit resulted in the creation of the Edwards Aquifer Authority and other regulatory infrastructure to improve conservation, the region’s insatiable, development-driven water grab has continued to leave downstream interests, like the whooping crane, vulnerable.

And if you don’t think there’s arrogance in the state’s long-held me-first, make-a-buck philosophy on water rights, consider that the Guadalupe Blanco River Authority extended an existing water-reservation contract with Exelon Corp. even as the notice of intent to file the whooping crane lawsuit was pending.

The timing of the new contract reserving 24 billion gallons of Guadalupe River water per year for a proposed nuclear power plant in Victoria was “a total coincidence,” the GBRA’s general counsel Bruce Wasinger told the Texas Tribune.

The GBRA’s decision illuminates how regulatory agencies’ actions can divide the landscape on water-resource management in Central and South Texas. It’s beyond me why it takes a lawsuit to force us to see what’s as plain as a map of the state’s hydrological features. Whether the water lords like it or not, the region’s water resources — and our fortunes — are inextricably connected.

Whooping cranes aren’t the only creatures that benefit from the Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers’ freshwater inflows. A health bay and estuary system also sustains several types of fish and shellfish that are critical to the coastal economy.

Environmentalists have been worried about the Guadalupe for years. In 2002, the conservation organization American Rivers named the Guadalupe one of America’s most endangered rivers. More than 10 years ago, the San Marcos River Foundation sued in state court to secure water for the Guadalupe’s environmental needs. Although the group won, the ruling was overturned on appeal and later dismissed.

The whooping crane lawsuit puts the state on notice that the state court ruling wasn’t the last word.

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