SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS

Group sues state over whooping crane deaths

Mar 11, 2010 | San Antonio Express-News by Colin McDonald | TAP In The News

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A conservation group filed a federal lawsuit Thursday in Corpus Christi claiming management of the Guadalupe River by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has led to the deaths of whooping cranes.

Because the 5-foot-tall birds are endangered and federally protected, the Aransas Project is asking the federal government to establish a habitat conservation plan that would supersede the state’s water management.

Last year 23 whooping cranes died on the Texas Coast. The flock that winters in and near the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge is the only self-sustaining population in the world and currently is estimated at 263 birds.

TAP contends the state is allowing too much water to be taken from the Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers and not leaving enough to keep San Antonio Bay healthy.

Without enough freshwater inflow the blue crab population in the bay drops and whooping cranes are denied their preferred food source.

“The harm that the whooping cranes have experienced is a direct result of TCEQ’s failed oversight of its water rights permit programs in the Guadalupe River Basin where too much water is being taken out of the Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers, especially during low flow conditions,” said TAP attorney Jim Blackburn. “The scientific evidence strongly indicates that, during lower flow conditions, the full use of existing water rights in this basin — granted and overseen by TCEQ — will worsen the condition of the whooping cranes if fully utilized.”

The TCEQ disagrees.

“The effect of low freshwater inflows, due to drought, into San Antonio Bay on the whooping crane population is far from certain,” said TCEQ spokesman Terry Clawson. “Staff of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is reviewing available studies on the whooping cranes, which indicate that there are a number of factors that affect the dominant food resources of the whooping crane, including freshwater inflows, salinity, tides and temperature.”

If the TAP lawsuit is successful, it could cause a major redistribution of Guadalupe River water rights.

In early 1990s when there was almost no management of pumping from the Edwards Aquifer, the Sierra Club and the Guadalupe Blanco River Authority sued for the protection of the endangered species living in the San Marcos and Comal springs.

Two decades later, that lawsuit has resulted in the creation of the Edwards Aquifer Authority and a federal program for local stakeholders to develop an aquifer pumping plan to protect the habitat the endangered species depend on, known as the Edwards Aquifer recovery implementation program, or RIP.

If the RIP fails, then a federal judge could take away the state’s authority to manage the aquifer and put a federal program in its place.

The GBRA and the San Antonio River Authority are concerned the TAP lawsuit could disrupt their own efforts to protect the environment as well as the state water planning process and the committee work commissioned under Texas Senate Bill 3 that is evaluating the environmental freshwater needs of the rivers and the estuaries they feed.

TAP argues that SB3 and the Texas water plan are not set up to curtail existing water rights, yet that’s what is needed to protect whooping cranes.

Last year not all water rights were used, TAP Director Ron Outen said, but with a two-year drought and reduced flows of the Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers due to upstream users, the bay reached salinity levels near that of the Gulf of Mexico and the flock had its largest die-off on record.

This year, salinity levels are low and only one juvenile bird has died.

“There is a direct link between inflows, salinity, crabs and cranes,” said Tom Stehn, the whooping crane coordinator at Aransas NWR. “It’s just well known you got to have freshwater inflows to have a healthy bay. The question is how much worse is management making it?”

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