TAP Files Notice of Intent to Sue TCEQ Officials For Illegally Harming Endangered Whooping Cranes

Dec 8, 2009 | Press Release

Rockport, TX — The Aransas Project (TAP) today filed a Notice of Intent to sue several officials of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) in their official capacity for illegal harm and harassment of whooping cranes at and adjacent to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in violation of Section 9 of the Federal Endangered Species Act. Under federal law, TAP must wait at least 60 days before filing suit. The individuals to be sued in their official capacity include the three commissioners of the TCEQ, the executive director and the TCEQ’s watermaster for the Guadalupe River.

According to TAP attorney Jim Blackburn, the winter of 2008/2009 was the worst in recent history for the whooping crane with a death toll of 23 birds, or 8.5% of the flock.   There is strong evidence that the problems experienced by the whooping cranes are directly caused by the permit programs of the TCEQ that allow too much water to be taken from the Guadalupe River Basin, especially during lower flow conditions.  The TCEQ authorizes the use of surface water rights from the Guadalupe and such diversions reduce necessary fresh water inflows to the bays and estuaries. Decreased fresh water to San Antonio Bay increases the salinity levels in the bays and estuaries that surround the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge – ecosystems that constitute the winter habitat for the last natural flock of whooping cranes.  Higher salinity levels adversely affect the health of the ecological systems needed to maintain the cranes.  As salinity increases, blue crabs – a major food source of the cranes – are driven away.   Wolfberries – another vital food of the cranes – are also diminished by high salinities.  With less food supply to nourish them, the cranes also have to fly further to find fresh water to drink.

“The TCEQ needs to develop a habitat conservation plan if there is to be any long-term hope for the future of this species and its habitat,” Blackburn said.  TAP is seeking a water management plan for this basin that reallocates water usage priorities, sets environmental flow standards for the bays, and includes a full accounting of all water uses and needs throughout the basin—all the way to the bay.”

Computer modeling completed by TAP indicates that the problems experienced by the whooping cranes last winter will be worsened if all existing water rights are fully utilized.  “These impacts will be worsened by use of existing water rights yet to be drawn from the Guadalupe like the reservation of 75,000 acre feet for the proposed Exelon Nuclear power plant, or the permits for additional future water rights that were recently filed by the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority.” Blackburn continues, “In a region with recognized water shortages, permits for massive quantities of water for industrial and municipal uses continue to be requested and granted.”

Dr. Ron Outen, Regional Director of TAP lives in Rockport, TX and explains that the ecosystems that support the cranes, fishing, and tourism represent a vital economic interest to these coastal communities.   “Ultimately, the argument to protect the whooping cranes goes beyond the desire to save an iconic endangered species—it is about saving a way of life. The cranes provide us with an early warning system of the overall health of these coastal ecosystems.”  Dr. Outen continues, “But we should remember that the whooping crane is the most recognizable endangered species in the world.  Mismanagement of water in the Guadalupe River Basin is destroying the winter habitat of these magnificent birds – and killing them.”