Appellate court stays whooper case ruling

Dianna Wray

March 26, 2013 at 7:05 p.m.
Updated March 25, 2013 at 10:26 p.m.

The whooping cranes will soon be winging their way back north, but the legal controversy surrounding the birds continues.

On Tuesday, a panel of three judges from the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals granted the state's request for a stay as the case concerning the deaths of 23 whooping cranes continues to move through the appeals process.

The stay allows the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to continue issuing water permits.

"GBRA is pleased that the 5th Circuit agreed that our position has significant merits," Bill West, general manager for the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, one of the defendants in the case, said in a release issued Tuesday.

Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack ruled the TCEQ had violated the Endangered Species Act in its handling of water resources in 2008-09, contributing to the deaths of 23 whooping cranes.

Jack ordered the state environmental agency not to issue any other water permits, except those required for health and public safety, until the stakeholders - including the GBRA and the city of Victoria - could put together a habitation conservation plan for the region benefiting the whooping cranes.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott asked for a federal judge to put an emergency stay on the order. He argued that Jack had overstepped her authority by ordering the state not to issue water permits along the San Antonio River and the Guadalupe River, the two rivers that feed into the San Antonio Bay and Aransas Bay. The GBRA and the San Antonio River Authority filed motions with Abbott.

The judges also expedited the appeal process.

The state's written brief is due April 25, and the plaintiff's brief is due May 24. Reply briefs are due June 10 with oral arguments slated to take place during the week of Aug. 5.

Jim Blackburn, the lawyer representing The Aransas Project, said he is focused on getting through the appeals process.

"We're pleased we got an expedited appeal," said Blackburn, a Houston-based environmental lawyer.

West said the GBRA also is looking forward for the case to be reviewed quickly by the appellate court.

"We look forward to presenting our case on the merits to the 5th Circuit, and are confident that the Court will conclude both that Judge Jack's decision overstepped her bounds and that GBRA's stewardship of the water resources within its territory is environmentally responsible and poses no threat to the whooping cranes," West stated.



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