Federal court will sort out water rights for whoopers

Apr 23, 2010 | Refugio County Press by Kenda Nelson | TAP In The News

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel tend to an injured whooping crane at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge where 23 of the endangered cranes died last year. A refuge specialist said last week that the deaths were believed to be caused by starvation.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s first public meeting on Exelon’s Site Permit last Thursday evening at the Victoria Community Center drew some of the county’s top officials, including County Judge Rene Mascorro and Refugio ISD Superintendent Jack Gaskins.

Overshadowing the new application from Exelon to build a nuclear power plant near the Victoria-Refugio county line is a federal court lawsuit filed in Corpus Christi last month against several officials of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). The suit filed by The Aransas Project (TAP) claims that state regulators allowed too many water permits along the Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers, resulting in high salinity in marshlands and estuaries at and near the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, where the only natural flock of whooping cranes on earth winter. A record 23 cranes died last year – the worst blow to the flock’s population since the 1940s.

The suit alleges that water use policies caused the crane’s food source to decline to the point that the endangered birds starved to death during a two-year drought in this region.

Vickie Muller, a specialist at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, said an autopsy conducted on one of the dead birds concluded that the bird died of starvation. A further look at the condition of the other cranes found that many other birds were emaciated.

The suit claims TCEQ violated the Endangered Species Act and names defendants as three TCEQ commissioners, the agency’s executive director and its South Texas watermaster.

While environmental studies will be conducted at a later date under NRC rules, last Thursday’s meeting was the preliminary review of the application only.

The company began looking at the site two years ago. One of the company’s spokespersons at the meeting said Exelon backed off on the original plan as a result of a decline in electric usage in Texas, the ebb in the economy and the unavailability of financing. The federal stimulus package opened the door for a second look at the site “if the economy turns around.”

“This preserves our option and allows us to demonstrate the suitability of this particular site,” the Exelon spokesperson said at the meeting.

At best, construction will not begin for at least 10 years down the road. Tying up water rights at the expense of future growth options didn’t bode well with some audience members.

“You’re giving up the most prized asset – water,” said opponent Tom Smith.

A proponent in the meeting suggested that the lawsuit was simply a way to block the Exelon plant.

Bill Jones, a water policy consultant for O’Connor Ranches and a member of the Region L Water Planning Board said he didn’t think there was “sufficient water in the long run.”

“I understand the zeal of economic development in local governments to bring jobs to the region,” he said. “But the question is, at what cost?”

The Exelon project is a perfect opportunity to move into desalination, according to Jones.

“New-age nuclear power plants can exist on salt water,” Jones said. “By moving the site back to Bay City, there would be an infinite supply of salt water. Is it good public policy to move the site of a water-intensive industry to a site in a drought-prone area? No, it’s not.”

Nuclear energy has an important place in the energy portfolio, according to Jones.

“The O’Connor family is not anti-nuclear. But this is a short-sighted use of scarce natural resources,” Jones said. “Victoria has put all its eggs in one basket. In the long run, the water is needed for population growth. The fresh water should be used for human consumption and to keep ecosystems vital and alive.”

The nuclear plant is speculated to bring 500 jobs to the area, all paying in excess of $70,000 per year, and more revenue for Refugio ISD since the plant site is within RISD’s taxing authority. As a body, local leaders, including former State Rep. Judy Hawley, were unified in favor the plant.

“The concerns don’t stop at the county line,” Judge Mascorro, told the group.

The local judge said the nuclear plant will have a global impact by reducing the reliance on foreign oil and provides a clean and safe alternative to the fossil fuel.

“It’s good for the region and good for America,” Mascorro said.

The environmental impact of the site will be decided during a future phase of NRC’s permitting process. Added to the mix will be TAP’s suit in the federal court system that will likely impact water rights that affect the stilt-legged, endangered whoopers.

TAP is an alliance of citizens, organizations, businesses and municipalities, including the O’Connor family, Aransas County, International Crane Foundation, American Bird Conservancy, Environment Texas and others.

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