A Feud Over Texas Whooping Cranes

Nov 10, 2011 | Bloomberg Businessweek by Laurel Brubaker Calkins | Related Press

A Feud Over Texas Whooping Cranes
Defenders of their natural habitat are pitted against owners of petrochemical plants, whose water use threatens the flock

By Laurel Brubaker Calkins

In drought-stricken Texas, heavy water use by chemical plants, refineries, and cities has left less fresh water for estuaries downstream, helping raise salinity levels in the coastal marsh 175 miles southwest of Houston. So environmentalists have sued state regulators to restrict water use along the river to protect the habitat of the last wild flock of whooping cranes that spend each winter there. But Dow Chemical (DOW), with a plant just upstream from the cranes, says it was there first. Citing the state’s first-come-first-served water-use regulations, Dow claims permits dating back to the 1940s allow it to use as much of the Guadalupe River’s output as it wants.

All this will be aired in federal court in December in a case that threatens to upend long-standing water rights. If environmentalists succeed in reshuffling rights along the Guadalupe, chemical companies say they’ll have to close plants, and cities say they won’t be able to grow. Industrial operators on other Texas rivers worry their water rights could also be challenged. “This is really about the coastal economy against the interior, where the interior is represented in the Texas water rights system and the coast isn’t,” says James B. Blackburn Jr., a Houston attorney representing environmentalists in the case.

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