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Need better ways to support endangered species

By BY W.E. "BILL" WEST JR.
March 23, 2013 at 3:05 p.m.
Updated March 22, 2013 at 10:23 p.m.

W.E. "BILL" WEST JR.

An unproven and potentially false premise is becoming the basis of policymaking for the state of Texas with respect to permitting its surface water. Precipitating this erroneous policymaking course is a lawsuit against the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) initiated by a group wielding the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) to bring a halt to water permitting on the Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers by alleging multiple deaths of the endangered whooping cranes that winter on the Texas coast. With only two whooping crane carcasses and two partial carcasses found during 2008-09, no evidence supported the double-digit losses claimed by the plaintiffs.

Yet March 11, a federal district court judge held that the TCEQ caused the death of 23 whooping cranes by issuing water permits that resulted in diverting water from the cranes and ordered TCEQ to immediately stop issuing water permits on the Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers. The judge also ordered a costly planning process that is duplicative of current state programs. This federally imposed policy, if it stands, will wreak havoc for water users in Texas while doing nothing in the recovery of the whooping cranes.

The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority (GBRA), which oversees a 10-county district between Austin and San Antonio and extends to San Antonio Bay, immediately became an intervener defendant. GBRA provides services that include hydroelectric generation; water and wastewater treatment; municipal, industrial and agricultural raw water supply; and recreational operations.

In 2001, GBRA founded the Guadalupe-Blanco River Trust to conserve land in the watershed, and one of its projects established a more reliable water supply in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) where the whooping cranes winter. GBRA and the San Antonio River Authority funded a study of whooping crane diet, behavior and habitat long before the lawsuit. GBRA also was instrumental in establishing the San Antonio Bay Foundation and has been a proud supporter of the whooping cranes.

When one speaks of endangered species, it evokes strong emotions that limit constructive discussion on the subject. Pointing a finger at a perceived threat to the whooping crane immediately demonizes the accused in the eyes of many. But the question remains whether the disputing parties have developed solutions that are beneficial to all the stakeholders involved.

With this court's recent decision, GBRA - and water users in the Guadalupe River Watershed and immediate adjacent areas must fight a court ruling that accepted a flawed counting methodology - one that allows a missing whooping crane to be counted as dead. On March 22, GBRA filed its notice of appeal with the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Last year, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) report criticized that aerial survey methodology, indicating it could not be used to establish deaths of whooping cranes. Many factors, such as weather conditions, could have caused a whooping crane to go unseen. The report outlined a scientifically accepted methodology for estimating the whooping crane population, but the court refused to admit the report into evidence or to consider it in the decision.

The court also concluded high salinity in water was the cause of the whooping crane "deaths" that they lacked fresh water to drink and that 2008-09 salinity levels affected blue crab availability. Yet the court ignored evidence proving whooping cranes are omnivores and eat a wide range of foods in addition to blue crabs and that the cranes will fly to adjacent locations at the ANWR to forage for food and water.

Another scientific study, also ignored, concluded that even if every drop of water had been left in the rivers, before development by humans and flowed to the bay for the benefit of whooping cranes - all other needs entirely - the level of salinity would have been affected less than the natural daily variability on salinity in the bay from natural forces like climate, winds and tides.

The court's decision also potentially jeopardizes five years of work on a recent USFWS-approved habitat conservation plan (HCP), including the efforts of 26 stakeholders and 60 other participants who developed the HCP for endangered species in the Edwards Aquifer, which is an integral part of the Guadalupe River System. And it ignores other state water planning initiatives at the time and expense taxpayers.

Policies and regulations based on unproven and potentially false premises is not the way to govern nor is the way the people of Texas want to be governed. Endangered whooping cranes need protection for their continued recovery. They should not be the pawns for usurping fresh water resources that must be shared for many uses, including population growth, agricultural productivity, environmental needs and economic development.

Bill West is the general manager of the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority.

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