ROCKPORT PILOT

Water for wildlife key to economy

Jul 20, 2011 | Rockport Pilot by Tom Callan | Related Press

The future of the San Antonio Bay system – and the health of our local economy – is in the hands of a committee of stakeholders officially known as the Guadalupe, San Antonio, Mission and Aransas rivers; and Mission, Copano, Aransas, and San Antonio Bays Basin and Bay Area Stakeholder Committee. Unfortunately, the membership of this committee was established without direct representation of our county.  Our interests have been represented by our elected officials and concerned citizens, but without benefit of voting rights.

During the next two months, this committee will decide how much water needs to be kept flowing in the Guadalupe, San Antonio, Mission and Aransas rivers and into San Antonio, Aransas, Mission and Copano bays to support fish and wildlife and the people who rely on them for their livelihood.

A team of expert scientists, appointed by the stakeholder committee noted  significant impacts on oysters and clams during the drought of 2008-09 when there were also losses of whooping cranes due to the absence of blue crabs, one of their main food sources.

Join  our representatives in urging the stakeholders to put forward recommendations which will provide enough water into the San Antonio Bay system to sustain the oysters, fish and wildlife so many depend upon for their livelihood.

The future of the bays and our way of life depends upon this water.

Recommendations

process basics

A consensus-based process was established by the Texas legislature in 2007 to determine the amount of water flow needed to protect rivers and bays while also allowing for water to be used to support growing populations in each of Texas’ bay and river basin areas.

The committee for our region, which consists of stakeholders representing a broad range of interests, from river authorities to industrial users to conservation interests, is currently working together to find a balance between the water needs of fish and wildlife as identified by a team of expert scientists and human water supply needs.

On Sept. 1, this committee must submit its recommendations for flow protections to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) for consideration and eventual adoption into law. The resulting standards will only impact new water-use permits by placing some limits on when and how much water those new permit holders can divert for human use.

Figures on bay-dependent local economy

The health of our local economy and our quality of life depends upon the ability of the San Antonio Bay system to sustain fish and wildlife. Our economy is dependent on the one million visitors, including winter Texans, who regard the City of Rockport and the Town of Fulton as a prime destination for the enjoyment of vacation time and water-based recreational activities which include fishing, boating, kayaking and the enjoyment of beaches and waterfronts.

Recreational fishing activities in Texas support 22,000 jobs and generate $2.8 billion in economic activity.

According to Tom Stehn at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, tourists coming to see the whooping cranes generate $5 million a year in the Rockport area.

(Note: All figures are from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration 2009 report.)

In addition, our bays provide large commercial catches of blue crab, white and brown shrimp and oysters – creating jobs, filling the plates at local seafood restaurants and generating significant economic activity in our region.

Commercial fishing in Texas is valued at $150 million per year.

Texas commercial fishermen landed 99 million pounds of seafood in 2009.

The Texas seafood industry generates $1.7 billion in sales impacts each year. (Note: This figure includes figures for imported and locally harvested seafood.)

The seafood industry provides 3,700 local harvester jobs.

Background on role of

environmental flows

Fish, crabs, shrimp and other wildlife in the San Antonio Bay system rely on a critical mix of freshwater from the Guadalupe, San Antonio, Mission and  Aransas rivers and saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico for their survival.

Freshwater flowing from these rivers into the bays provides the necessary salinity balance which supports nursing and breeding grounds for developing marine life.

In fact, 95 percent of the Gulf’s recreationally and commercially important fish and other marine species rely on the bays for part of their life cycle.

Freshwater also delivers valuable nutrients and sediment that nourishes fish and wildlife in the estuaries and maintains marshes.

Marshes help prevent erosion during hurricanes and provide shelter and food for waterfowl, fish and other animals.

Bays become unnaturally salty and inhospitable to fish and wildlife without sufficient freshwater inflow.

In recent years the numbers of redfish, spotted sea trout and flounder have been seen to decline in periods of drought to the extent local fishing guides have been forced to other areas of the coastal bend in order to satisfy clients catch requirements.

Science team warnings

A report by a team of scientists warns about the potential impacts on fish and wildlife, particularly clams and oysters, if the stakeholders do not sufficiently protect freshwater flowing into the San Antonio Bay system.

However, the same science team recommends freshwater flows which appear to be less than those recorded during periods of extreme drought.

Clams and oysters are indicator species – a bay’s proverbial canary in the coalmine. If these species decline, fish, shrimp and waterfowl that depend on them for their survival will soon follow.

Without sufficient freshwater, the team of expert scientists predict that there will be fewer Rangia clams – an important indicator species.

Fewer clams could reduce water clarity and lead to a decline in fish, waterfowl and other animals that feed upon them.

Rangia clams thrive in brackish water (a mixture of seawater and fresh water) and serve as a significant source of food for crabs, fish, shrimp and waterfowl.

Rangia clams, like oysters, are filter feeders. As they feed, they strain food particles and suspended solids from the water effectively cleaning the water.

Scientist estimate these clams can live up to 15 years.

If there is less fresh water flowing into the bays, scientists warn future droughts similar to the drought of the 1950s will have a greater and longer lasting detrimental impact on commercial oyster reefs in the San Antonio Bay system.

There is potential for significant oyster deaths, and reefs will take longer to recover. Oysters also will be stressed by more frequent periods of low flow.

In addition, reducing the amount of fresh water flowing into the bays increases salinity, making oysters more susceptible to diseases such as Dermo, as well as oyster drillers and other predators.

Oysters provide food, shelter and habitat for many other animals, including commercially fished species.

As filter feeders, they can filter up to five gallons of water per hour, removing pollutants, sediment and other suspended particles that impact water quality.

Conclusion

The bottom line is the health of Texas’ bays – along with the fish, wildlife and local economies that depend up on them – will suffer if they do not receive sufficient freshwater flowing into them from rivers.

Most of the water flowing in our region’s rivers – the Guadalupe, San Antonio, Mission and Aransas rivers – is already spoken for by existing water-use permits. As a result, our coastal communities are already suffering from the negative impacts of reduced flows during periods of drought, such as the drought of 2008-2009.

As stakeholders consider what restrictions are appropriate for future water-use permits, we implore them to remember the importance of freshwater into our bays and act accordingly when considering the appropriate balance between upstream human needs and the needs of coastal fish and wildlife.

Here at the coast, human needs and environmental needs are inextricably linked.

Please join us in urging stakeholders to seize this unique opportunity before them to protect the San Antonio Bay system and our natural heritage for future generations by delivering a consensus recommendation for strong flow protections by September 1.

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