Aransas Project seeks proper management of Guadalupe River Basin

By: NORMA MARTINEZ, Managing Editor Rockport Pilot
Published: Wednesday, November 18, 2009 12:22 AM CST

Representatives from The Aransas Project (AP) were on hand at last week’s Chamber of Commerce luncheon to explain why the organization exists and to encourage others to join the nonprofit organization.

The Aransas Project founders are focused on supporting a Texas water management policy for the Guadalupe River Basin (GRB) and its bays which takes into consideration the entire system in a reasonable, sustainable, and environmentally sound matter.

The AP is an alliance of organizations, communities, families and citizens who seek legislated change in the water management of the GRB. AP members believe environmental flow standards for the GRB are essential to support the bays and estuaries, particularly during times of drought. Currently with no environmental flows standards in place, there is no freshwater committed to protect the bays and estuaries. As a result, AP members believe the management practices of the state of Texas are partly or wholly responsible for the deaths of the 8.5 percent of the whooping crane flock in the winter of 2008-09.

The Aransas area includes a number of estuaries and bays like San Antonio, Mesquite, Carlos, St. Charles and Aransas, as well as the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The latter is the winter habitat of the federally endangered whooping crane. The record breaking death toll of the whooping crane indicates not enough freshwater is reaching the bays and estuaries.

This area is also dependent on tourism and commercial and recreational fishing, all reliant on the health of the bays. The habitats and ecosystems of the area bays and estuaries are dependent on freshwater inflows of the GRB. Aransas Bay begins where the river ends. The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority’s jurisdiction ends at San Antonio Bay, but the way it manages the GRB impacts Aransas.

The Texas Legislature recenty directed the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to focus on environmental flows and their importance to the health of bays and estuaries. AP founders state while it is obvious attention should be paid to San Antonio Bay, it may not be as obvious decisions made throughout the GRB impact the ANWR as well as Aransas Bay.

A recently completed study using state water models show the impact of reduced freshwater inflows from the Guadalupe. They show the current water diversion have a dramatic effect on the Aransas area. In years of drought, the salinity levels of the bays and estuaries increase and thus adversely impact species such as the blue crab and brown shrimp. They must travel to find freshwater for sustainability, and if none is to be found, they can not survive.

Area fisherman describe this year as the worst the region has seen for the blue crab and brown shrimp and link that impact to the drought. They also note future diversions will dramatically increase the salinity level and widen the number of species to be impacted.

In order to reduce that increased salinity, increased freshwater inflows from the Guadalupe are necessary. AP members also point to another critical indicator of the need for freshwater inflows – whooping cranes. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 protects such species as well as “the ecosystem upon which they depend.” Therefore, protecting whoopers is about more than just preserving an endangered species.

In 1941, the whooping crane population numbered only 16 birds. Since then, conservation efforts restoreds the world’s only naturally migrating flock to include more than 250 birds. They breed in Canada and winter at the ANWR. Its continued survival is at risk due to the loss of its primary food source, blue crabs. The diminished number of blue crabs has been linked directly to increased salinity levels around the ANWR.

As aforementioned, the winter of 2008-09 was the worst in recent history for whooping cranes wintering at the refuge. The flock experienced the death of 23 birds, which included 16 juveniles. That represents a 42 percent loss in the total number of juveniles. The second worst year was the winter of 1990-91, when 11 birds out of 146 (7.5 percent) of the flock died.

Scientific data behind the deaths shows the reduction in freshwater inflows from the GRB has directly impacted the number of blue crabs and subsequently impacted the whooping crane population.

Using state water models to run different scenarios, salinity studies projected by the AP consulting scientists show proposed future diversions of water from the Guadalupe will dramatically increase the salinity levels in the bays and estuaries along the Texas coast.

Not only will this impact the whooping crane, but it will also have a devastating effect on the fishing, recreational and tourism economy.

The AP founders also believe the bays and estuaries dependent on the Guadalupe River System are at risk. In 2002, American Rivers named the Guadalupe as one of America’s most endangered rivers, citing a significant amount of water diversion and the lack of any commitment to maintain sufficient river flow as main threats. It was noted the increasing demand for water resources has forced the GBRA to focus its planning efforts on municipal and industrial needs rather than environmental needs of the bays and estuaries of the Texas coast. As a result, the coast is not a priority in Texas water planning.

AP founders emphasize the approach for managing the water resources of the GRB must change or there is a risk of devastating economic and environmental damage to the Texas Coast.

They emphasize better planning processes are needed to ensure future water permits are not excessive and instream flows to the bays are sufficient. They state the GBRA is trying to “grab all the water it can” primarily to sell to upper basin industrial and municipal users. The water, however, is needed downstream to protect the bays and estuaries with freshwater inflows which are needed to maintain the habitat of the whooping crane, as well as that of crabs and fish. The GBRA has pointed this responsibility to the TCEQ so it is up to that agency to maintain beneficial inflows protecting the bays and estuaries.

Therefore AP members will file a notice of intent to sue the TCEQ for violation of section 9 of the Federal Endangered Species Act. Through the litigation, TCEQ’s system of water management and rights will be held accountable for the harm to whooping cranes. The desired outcome is it will result in legislative changes in the water management of the GRB, including higher environmental flow standards for the bays and estuaries.