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CON: State already is doing enough to protect whoopers

By By Dianna Wray - DWRAY@VICAD.COM
Dec. 23, 2012 at 6:23 a.m.
Updated Dec. 24, 2012 at 6:24 a.m.

Whooping cranes were seen in flight from aboard The Skimmer out of Fulton Harbor in Rockport.

The state should not be required to change its water plan on behalf of the whooping cranes.

The Aransas Project maintains that insufficient freshwater inflows from the Guadalupe River caused 23 cranes to die during the drought in 2009, but Bill West, the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority general manager, said there are questions as to whether that number of whooping cranes died in the first place.

West is concerned that a ruling against the GBRA, could change how water rights are handled in Texas.

"The basic issue here, the whooping cranes, could result in a drastic change in the way rivers in the state are managed, moving the management from state to federal," West said.

A ruling against them could allow a federal water master to come in and reallocate water rights without using the policy that has been in place for years.

The GBRA put in a motion to reopen the case, heard U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack earlier this year, after a study was issued by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, questioning the way the whooping cranes were counted by Tom Stehn, the longtime whooping crane coordinator at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge who retired earlier this year. The judge denied the request, but West said the study still calls the issue into question whether the birds died at all.

Jerry James, director of intergovernmental services for the city of Victoria, voiced his concerns on this point as well.

"I don't see that the plaintiffs have demonstrated that there has been harm to the whooping cranes," James said. "I think there's some more questions about how those counts were done, and I haven't seen real evidence of how many of those cranes died."

James noted that the flock has continued to swell to record numbers since 2009, even through the 2011 drought, which was much more severe, he said.

If the judge issues an order in favor of the plaintiffs, West said, the GBRA would lose 50,000 acre feet of water. This would put the GBRA's contracts with those who hold junior water rights, like Victoria, in jeopardy. Water is key to economic development, and if communities along the Guadalupe can't get the water they need, it could damage their growth.

"If that happened, you'd shut down development down on the Guadalupe, and that includes Victoria," he said.

James also voiced his concern about potentially losing the surface water rights.

"We certainly don't want to jeopardize what we have in place for our water supply," he said. "We need to be careful with our water supplies, but I don't think we need to change how we do this yet."

Water resources in Texas are a complicated system, but West said he feels they need to be trusted to act on the best interest of all parties - that's how the system has evolved.

"Resource management of the water in the state of Texas is something that has evolved, and now it's a system with many checks and balances," West said.

While the whooping cranes have been a point of concern for the GBRA for years - West noted that the GBRA has been one of the biggest proponents of the birds, sponsoring studies and working to ensure their habitat and food supply is protected - but the allocation of water rights is a delicate balance between the needs of those in the city and those in the country, between humans and animals.

"We are big champions of the whooping cranes, but they just aren't qualified for more than their fair share," West said. "We are resource managers, and we have to manage the whole resource to the benefit of all users, humans and animals."

Related stories:

PRO: State should be required to allocate water for whoopers, click HERE

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