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Guest column: We should be saving coastal treasure

July 27, 2014 at 2:27 a.m.

Elizabeth H. Smith, Ph.D., Whooping Crane Conservation Biologist

The recent ruling by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals does not hold the state of Texas responsible for the fate of whooping cranes in the San Antonio Bay system. The court ruled the state could not have foreseen that by not releasing sufficient freshwater to the bays, whooping cranes would be negatively impacted and die. But if the state of Texas was not aware that severely reducing the amount of freshwater to the bays would harm whooping cranes and degrade the estuary system, it should be aware of it now. As Texans, we should insist the state take that responsibility seriously moving forward.

The future of our bays and estuaries hinges on responsible water management that values life and all water users throughout the river basin. The whooping crane is a flagship for how we manage our waters. Whooping cranes number only about 300 on its wintering grounds in Texas, and after 70 years of recovery from very near extinction, their future remains completely dependent on the future of our coasts.

Historically, this species wintered along a broader stretch of the Gulf of Mexico, southeastern U.S. coast and interior of Mexico. Now, only one wild population breeds in a remote location in Canada and winters only in the coastal waters of the Guadalupe and San Antonio river basin. The health of our San Antonio Bay system is intricately tied to both the return of Gulf waters through Cedar Bayou and the predictability of freshwater inflows from the Guadalupe and San Antonio river basin. Further misappropriations of flows, which resulted in the death of 8.5 percent of the crane's population in 2008-09, could result in the extinction of this last remaining wild flock. This places a huge responsibility on maintaining that estuarine system not only for whooping cranes but also for the bounty of recreational fisheries, tourism and coastal enterprise it sustains. If the state does not take responsibility for the responsible management of Texas waters, who will? Do we honestly believe that individual permittees will "foresee" the impacts of withdrawing or diverting freshwater from the Guadalupe-San Antonio Basin on a case-by-case basis?

The International Crane Foundation is one of the many organizations seriously concerned about the mismanagement of freshwater flowing into our coastal systems. We continue to work with all interested partners to find alternatives and viable solutions in our world of finite water availability, especially during drought conditions. Our efforts will not save our bays and estuaries, however, unless the state of Texas recognizes that the ultimate leadership on water management must come from the state.

As a coastal scientist working with other professionals to deliver scientifically sound information to guide environmental decisions, I will continue to increase awareness that our system is at a tipping point. It is up to the citizens of Texas to ensure we don't lose this coastal treasure. Please let your representatives know that we need a change of attitude about water. Let's keep this initiative at the forefront of our efforts to save our beautiful Texas coast for future Texans.

Elizabeth H. Smith is a native Texan and resides in Refugio County between the Aransas and Mission rivers and Copano Bay. She is a graduate of Corpus Christi State University (B.S., M.S.) and Texas A&M University (Ph.D.) and is the whooping crane conservation biologist for the International Crane Foundation. Smith also is a member of the graduate faculty at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and Texas State University. She may be reached at esmith@savingcranes.org.

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