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Is The Battle Over Whooping Crane Conservation A Fight Over Water Rights?

whooping cranes-flickr user sfitzgerald86.jpg
Flickr user sfitzgerald86

Four major players square off in the fight to save whooping cranes; one side wants to save the birds, while the other side sees an invasion of state's rights. Water management is one of the large items on the table for this session of the Texas Legislature, the question then is: What is the best way to solve the problem?

Save the cranes! Or save the Water!

Depending on who you talk to the effort to protect the endangered whooping crane is about maintaining a magnificent bird species that was on the brink of extinction, or the federal government wanting to take control of Texas lakes, rivers and streams during a historic time of drought.

We have two points of view and two sets of facts, but one reality: There is too much demand and too little water in Texas.

Here are the main players in this drama – other than the whooping cranes:

Jim Blackburn is the Attorney for The Aransas Project, a Rockport-based environmental group. Blackburn has long been an advocate for the Texas Gulf Coast and responsible water management.

"It doesn't mean that they can't have water anymore (people upstream) but it does mean that the state has to manage water with an eye to the bay and the cranes as well as to other uses... basically one more factor has been added to the state equation for allocating water, and that is: Some of that water, enough to keep the whooping cranes alive, needs to get down to the bay."

The GBRA and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott are on the other side. We did reach out to the attorney general's office, but they did not want to participate any more than the statements they’ve released to the media – which we’ve referenced.

GBRA General Manager Bill West said that this legal tussle over water permits is critical to the future of Texas.

"The plaintiffs filing and the judges order could have a monumental effect on our ability to provide water to our constituents. It totally undermines the state's water rights permitting process. It's an intervention of the federal government in state's rights and completely has the potential of re-adjudicating the San Antonio and the Guadalupe River."

Also on this show: What is the best way to manage water?

The latest battle over water is one more wake up call for Texas that we are in a water crisis. There’s a growing number of towns where water supplies are running short.

The latest headline grabber is a report that says Wichita Falls has about six months of drinking water remaining, but officials from the the North Texas city of about 100,000 say that report is misleading- they in fact have about a year’s worth of water.

That is hardly comforting.

The report mix-up is the result of limited and arcane ways that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality communicates with water utility. It seems that the TCEQ is still operating under the premise that Texas is flush with water.

Texas lawmakers, however, seem to have gotten the message that Texas is at a tipping point when it comes to water and it’s time for real action and real money. Lawmakers are set to tap $2 billion from the rainy day fund to deal with the drought.

Luke Metzger of Environment Texas says state leaders are too focused on mega-engineering projects like reservoirs and cross state pipelines – and are coming up short on conservation.

"The droughts really underscored that we can't continue with business as usual when it comes to our water future, and that we need to get smarter about using our water. Unfortunately, some of the proposals about how to address our water needs are just kind of doubling down on 20th century approaches that are not necessarily environmentally responsible, and in fact can be quite expensive. Things like building new reservoirs or pipeline projects shipping water across the state out to West Texas, or even desalination projects, all have significant environmental impacts. That's why we think it's critical before we go down that road that we really are exhausting the conservation that's on the table and conserving water."

David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi