Freshwater mussel species considered for endangered species listing

Sara  Sneath By Sara Sneath

Nov. 5, 2016 at 10:27 p.m.
Updated Nov. 6, 2016 at 6 a.m.

Water managers in the state could soon find themselves battling again with wildlife advocates over endangered species that compete for water with growing municipalities and industry.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering listing a dozen freshwater mussels that live in rivers throughout the state under the Endangered Species Act. One species, the Texas hornshell, could be listed as early as August 2017.

Burrowed into river bottoms, freshwater mussels improve water quality by feeding on algae, bacteria and organic particles. But freshwater mussels are among the most threatened species in North America.

The species depend on water quality and water quantity, said Lesli Gray, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Federal listing of the species could affect water management practices for several rivers throughout the state, including the Colorado, Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers.

But water managers say there's not enough information about the mollusks to be able to determine what steps to take now to prevent their decline.

"The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has not taken any action based upon the proposed listings," TCEQ spokesman, Andrew Keese, said. "The TCEQ will evaluate what actions that need to be taken once the listings are finalized."

The Texas Water Development Board hasn't changed its water management based on the potential listings either, Merry Klonower, spokeswoman for the board, said.

The 2013 state legislature allocated $5 million to the state Comptroller's office to contract with state universities for research on species under review for federal listing, said Meghan Hope, an economic growth and endangered species managementpolicy analyst for the Comptroller's office. The 2015 legislature provided an additional $5 million for this research. About $1 million is going toward freshwater mussel research.

One of the institutions receiving money to study the mussels is Texas A&M's Institute of Renewable Natural Resources.

Researchers there are focusing on freshwater mussels in Central Texas, their distribution and the genetic makeup of the species, said Roel Lopez, the director for the Texas A&M Institute of Renewable Natural Resources.

While very little is known about the species, Lopez said it's fair to say their decline is likely the result of greater pressure on water use and changes in water quality.

Part of the institute's research has been trying to pinpoint the environmental factors that are affecting the species, including the wellbeing of the fish that play a role in their procreation.

Freshwater mussels typically release larvae that attach to fish gills or fins until they transform to a juvenile stage, when they drop to the river bottom.

"Their decline might be tied to their host fish as well," Lopez said. "Those are the kind of questions we're trying to answer."

The Comptroller's Office also has a freshwater mussel working group that has met about once a quarter for the past two years to share information about the mussels. River authorities and state agencies have attended those meetings, Hope said.

Neither the Guadalupe- Blanco River Authority nor the Lower Colorado River Authority have taken any water management steps to address the potential listings.

But both river authorities say they're keeping a close eye on potential listings.

"At this point, it's premature to say whether or how future listings may impact water management in the lower Colorado River basin," Lower Colorado River Authority spokeswoman, Clara Tuma, said.

In 2010, a group of wildlife advocates filed a lawsuit against Texas Commission on Environmental Quality officials for allowing too much water to be taken from the Guadalupe River. Lack of freshwater during a severe drought in the state resulted in the deaths of 23 endangered whooping cranes, according to the wildlife advocacy group, The Aransas Project.

A district judge ruled in favor of The Aransas Project, holding by the group's logic and blame of the state for the whooping crane deaths. But an appeals court later overturned the decision. The appeal's court decision stuck.

The case cost ratepayers and taxpayers more than $7 million, according to the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, an intervener in the case.

Jim Blackburn, the Houston-based environmental attorney who led The Aransas Project suit against the state, said he doesn't foresee the same level of legal battle happening over freshwater mussels.

"I honestly think that the attitudes are changing," he said. "I think the whooping crane litigation was an object lesson that there is a better way to go about this than fighting in court."

But the only way to prevent listing of the species would be to do something about the issue now, said Taylor Jones, an endangered species advocate for WildEarth Guardians, the organization that petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list a wide array of freshwater mussels found in Texas.

"It's always easier to conserve a species when it's doing better than when it's doing worse," she said. "If there's any chance that these species aren't listed, that would be based on what the state does now."



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