Whooping crane lawsuit to move forward

Jul 28, 2010 | Corpus Christi Caller-Times by Jaime Powell | TAP In The News

CORPUS CHRISTI — A lawsuit contending that the state endangered whooping cranes that winter in Aransas County will move forward after rulings Wednesday from U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack. The Aransas Project, an alliance of residents, organizations, businesses and governmental entities, sued the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in March. The suit claims the state agency allowed too much water to be drained from the Guadalupe River, reducing inflows into area bay systems that some biologists contend are critical to the birds’ survival.

Assistant Attorney General Brian Berwick and Thomas Watkins, who represents the Texas Chemical Council, argued Wednesday that Jack should dismiss the suit or step down from it. Jack denied both motions.

The flock of whooping cranes that winters at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge is the only naturally occurring group of the tall, white-plumed birds. Their population increased from 16 birds in the early 1940s to a high of 270 in spring 2008.

From April 2008 to April 2009, 57 whooping cranes died, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Of those, 23 died in South Texas during a record drought. The Aransas Project contends that low river flow resulted in high salinity levels that depleted the population of blue crabs, a whooping crane dietary staple. Watkins and Berwick argued that the TCEQ does not have the authority to alleviate issues with inflows. Such authority is granted by the legislature, Berwick said. “We are not the environmental actor, we are the regulator,” Berwick said.

Aransas Project attorney Jim Blackburn argued that the TCEQ can seek a Habitat Conservation Plan that would limit habitat modifications along the river, caused by entities subject to the regulators’ supervision. Berwick and Watkins said that historic Texas water rights laws, and hundreds of existing water access permits along the river that benefit agriculture, livestock and commerce, cannot be pushed aside by the TCEQ or the federal court. Such permits cannot be amended without legislation, Watkins said.

Jack said it was too early in the process to dismiss the lawsuit, indicating that she wants to hear more from both sides before making a decision.

The matter is set for trial in Jack’s court in March.

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