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Whooping cranes pit state vs. feds over water rights

By By Dianna Wray - DWRAY@VICAD.COM
Dec. 4, 2011 at 6:04 a.m.


Whooping cranes have come a long way from being almost extinct in 1941.

However, concern over their future has sparked a legal battle that pits environmentalists against state agencies. The trial starts Monday in federal court in Corpus Christi.

Whooping cranes have been wintering in their natural habitat on the coast of South Texas for hundreds of years. The tall birds were almost extinct when the last naturally migrating flock was discovered at what became the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in the 1940s. Only 15 of the majestic birds were left when they were discovered in 1941 in the marshes on the South Texas coast. Since then, they have been slow to add to their numbers, but through years of effort, the flock has steadily grown.

They suffered a setback in 2008 when the marshes they live in became too salty to support the wolfberries and blue crabs the tall birds live off of. Unable to get enough nutrition, 23 birds are believed to have died that year from starvation.

The deaths sparked a federal case over whether the state supplied enough fresh water to support the species. The Aransas Project, an environmental coalition, claims the state doesn't provide enough fresh water for the federally protected endangered species.

Jim Blackburn, the attorney representing The Aransas Project, said the group is seeking to set in motion a plan releasing fresh water into the bays and estuaries. He said the state has allocated water for the Guadalupe and San Antonio River systems to the point that it violates the Endangered Species Act.

The flock is the only naturally migrating flock left in the world, and Blackburn said he hopes the case will persuade the court to require more fresh water to be released.

Blackburn said he also believes the birds are crucial as indicators about the health of the coastal environment - a canary in the coal mine.

"If that whooping crane is in trouble, so is recreational fishing, so is commercial fishing," he said. "This is really about protecting the coast, and it needs protection because the state of Texas is not protecting the coast."

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality controls water rights in the state. The TCEQ maintains that there is no evidence of any losses, and the state agency wants to stick with its current fresh water release system.

The Guadalupe Blanco River Authority is the largest water rights holder in the basin. GBRA General Manager Bill West said he doesn't think any cranes died in 2008 since the numbers were back up the next year.

West said the Aransas Project is requesting that the court appoint a federal magistrate and allot 1.8 million acre feet of water to the bays and estuaries, allocating the rest of the water to the water stake holders.

"It will be a total reversal of state water rights that have been in place for over 100 years. ... It's a classic struggle between state and federal authority," West said.

If the federal district court finds in favor of the Aransas Project, West said, the river authority intends to appeal to the decision.

The whoopers began arriving at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in October, and biologists predict the flock will swell to more than 300 birds this year.

While their numbers have improved, Dan Alonso, manager of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, said it will take having at least 1,000 cranes in the flock to get them off the endangered species list.

"The prolonged drought could impact them significantly. With poor conditions in the marshes, there could be a far-reaching impact - it could reduce reproductivity, could mean a recovery of the species won't be obtained at all," Alonso said.

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