Needs of cranes and city-slickers aren’t mutually exclusive

Feb 3, 2010 | San Antonio Express-News by Veronica Flores-Paniagua | Related Press

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service field supervisor Allan Strand is understated when he observes that there are some “difficult decisions” ahead when it comes to sharing the region’s water.

Preferably, such issues wouldn’t have to be resolved in court, and at least one process is under way to bring resolution to the longstanding water fight. But stakeholders haven’t always shown a willingness to come to the table without being shoved.

Strand has worked at the Aransas Wildlife Refuge nearly 20 years and is intimately acquainted with the many species that make the refuge their home, not the least of them the endangered whooping crane that winters there. The 2008-2009 drought-stricken season was devastating. An estimated 57 birds perished at the refuge and in migration, the worst year for fatalities since the Fish and Wildlife Service started tracking cranes in 1938.

This year is likely to put the birds at a similar crossroads because the cranes’ primary food — blue crabs and wolfberries — didn’t benefit from the fall rains. Another deadly year will fuel the battle cry for a coastal group that wants to sue the state over its management of the San Antonio and Guadalupe rivers.

The Aransas Project, representing business interests and environmentalists, believes upstream users of the rivers are drawing too much from the waterways and harming the whooping crane habitat. While San Antonio primarily depends on the Edwards Aquifer for its water, the threatened lawsuit could force the city to reduce the amount of water it recaptures for its recycled water program.

The need to share the region’s water resources rarely has prompted easy alliances. Take the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority. The GBRA was on the “winning” side of a federal lawsuit that forced stakeholders to develop better regulation of Edwards pumping rights to keep endangered species alive in the Comal and San Marcos springs. But now it finds itself disputing the Aransas Project’s contention that reduced freshwater inflows have hurt whooping cranes.

Who could blame upstream interests for a “me first!” attitude? As Spanish settlers who established the missions near the San Antonio River understood, water is the lifeblood of a flourishing city.

But it’s the lifeblood of downstream communities and living creatures, too, and, ultimately, respect for the resource’s limits also ensures the viability of upstream concerns.

In an op-ed published last week in the Express-News, Aransas County Commissioner Charles Smith pleaded for understanding that freshwater inflows are critical to the health of coastal bays and the tourism industry. “If the bays are unable to survive,” he wrote, “it is only a matter of time before the entire river basin is put in jeopardy.”

Back at the refuge, Strand and his colleagues watch the situation uneasily.

“They’re going to have to look at different ways to preserve water (for upstream uses), while maintaining the health of our bays and estuaries,” Strand said.

It sounds so simple.

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