SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS

Whooping cranes spark a water war: Federal lawsuit is filed that could have an impact all the way to San Antonio.

Dec 4, 2011 | San Antonio Express-News by Colin McDonald | TAP In The News

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FULTON — The whooping crane, the majestic bird slowly making its way back from the brink of extinction, is returning to the Texas coast in record numbers, with as many as 300 expected.

This could be a hard winter for the endangered species, however, because a severe drought has left the marshes saltier than usual and without the abundance of plump blue crabs they like to eat.

Working in pairs, the cranes can be seen all along the shores of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, rooting through the mud and coming up empty.

These conditions, made worse by a toxic algae bloom in the Gulf, could bolster a federal lawsuit filed by a local group against Texas over how much water is needed to sustain the species.

The outcome of the case, which goes to trial Monday, could further limit the allocation of water in the basins of the San Antonio and Guadalupe rivers and ultimately affect San Antonio water and energy customers.

The drought, the worst one-year event on record, has decreased the flow of fresh water from the rivers into the marshes and bays where the cranes congregate for the winter before flying 2,500 miles back to their summer breeding grounds in northern Alberta, Canada.

Some biologists say the conditions in Texas this year remind them of late 2008, which was the beginning of the deadliest winter on record for the flock.

As many as 23 cranes perished then, nearly 8 percent, which was the largest die-off ever recorded, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Those deaths prompted the suit against the state in federal court.

That suit, which pits environmentalists and the local governments and businesses of Aransas County against the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and water suppliers, will be tried in Corpus Christi, about 40 miles from the refuge.

The Aransas Project, an environmental coalition, has accused the state of putting the cranes in harm’s way with its management of the fresh water flowing into the birds’ habitat.

“The future of the whooping crane hangs on the outcome of the trial,” said Jim Blackburn, the Houston attorney for the Aransas Project. “Federal intervention is the only chance for its long-term survival.”

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