Texans Fight Over Birds, Water Rights

Mar 12, 2010 | The Wall Street Journal by Ana Campoy | TAP In The News

DALLAS—A coalition of environmentalists, bird lovers and Gulf Coast municipalities sued Texas regulators in federal court this past week, accusing them of mismanaging waters necessary for the survival of the biggest flock of endangered whooping cranes, which migrate to South Texas every winter.

The group, called the Aransas Project, claims that officials from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality violated the Endangered Species Act by not ensuring enough fresh water from the Guadalupe River flowed to the estuary where the cranes stay, causing the death of 23 birds in Texas last year. The lawsuit was filed late Wednesday in Corpus Christi.

But state-designated water managers say the real goal of the suit is to block a potential nuclear-power project that would compete for the same water.

The tallest bird in North America, the whooping crane is also the rarest crane species in the world. Less than 400 survive in the wild, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A report released Thursday by the Department of Interior found that climate change threatens to exacerbate current pressures on birds such as whooping cranes.

“What we are trying to do with the litigation is put the whooping cranes into the water-rights process,” said Jim Blackburn, the Aransas Project’s lawyer.

The Texas environmental commission countered that it was “far from certain” how reduced fresh-water inflows affected the cranes, adding that it was reviewing existing studies on the subject.

Disputes over water that pit people and industry against wildlife are likely to emerge more frequently in Texas as the state’s population continues to expand in regions where water supplies are already stretched and where water rights have long been a point of contention.

Regulators have sold much of the state’s surface water. In some basins, they have sold more than the rivers actually carry, even in wet years, though not all water rights are currently exercised.

A severe drought that parched the state last year offered a glimpse of what would happen if more water owners made use of their permits. Guadalupe River managers cut deliveries to junior-rights holders who are subject to restrictions when flows are low. (Senior-rights holders, which have first priority, received their water.)

Reduced fresh-water flows increased salinity levels in the marshes where the lanky white birds with black-tipped wings settle with their chicks after their trip from Canada. That reduced the availability of blue crabs and wolfberries, the cranes’ preferred foods, and forced them to fly farther to find fresh water, said Tom Stehn, whooping-crane coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service. Almost 9% of the 270 birds that arrived last winter died.

With the drought ended, the crane’s population bounced back to 264 at the beginning of this season, and only one has died since. Still, Mr. Stehn worries that insufficient water flows in the future could shrink the size of the flock, by far the largest in the world and the only one left that migrates without human help.

Charles Smith, a commissioner of Aransas County, which is a member of the plaintiff coalition, said bird-watching accounts for some 25% of the local economy, with the cranes the biggest stars.

Bill West, the general manager of the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, which manages the river that feeds the crane habitat, said the Aransas Project’s claims are off-base. His agency recently extended an agreement to reserve 75,000 acre-feet of water for a potential nuclear project by Exelon Corp. That amount is about seven times the yearly amount that is used by the nearby city of Victoria, according to calculations from the Aransas Project.

Mr. West says the lawsuit— which claims that more cranes will die if the nuclear project is built—is primarily about the plant.

“This is not about the whooping crane; it’s a NIMBY situation” to kill the potential nuclear plant, he said, referring to the common phrase for Not In My Back Yard.

But the main patron of the Aransas Project, a local ranching family named O’Connor, countered that they have been working to preserve water in the area for years.

“The nuclear-power plant issue eventually was the last straw for the family,” said Bill Jones, water-policy consultant for the O’Connor family.

An Exelon spokesman says the company is not involved in the dispute and will not pursue the power-plant project if there is not enough water.

The company said last year it was slowing development efforts on the Texas project after losing out on a request for a federal loan guarantee that would have dramatically reduced financing costs for the plant. Since then, the Obama administration has said it favored raising loan guarantees for nuclear plants to $54.5 billion from $18.5 billion.

Another factor that will influence Exelon’s decision whether to proceed is likely to be the nuclear development plans of its competitors.

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