Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Threat to the Winter Refuge of Whooping Cranes?

If you have been following weather news in North America, you may be aware that Texas is in the midst of a prolonged drought that is extreme even by that state's standards. That drought has been exacerbated by one of the hottest summers on record. That situation is unpleasant for the people who live there and sets up battles over water rights. One of them concerns the winter residence of endangered Whooping Cranes.

Whooping Cranes at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge / USFWS
The western migratory population of Whooping Cranes breeds in Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada and migrates south to Aransas NWR for the winter. The refuge protects freshwater and brackish marshes where the cranes can forage. Unfortunately these marshes are now threatened by the recent drought to the extent that their water chemistry is changing. Conservationists are seeking to change water usage upstream along the Guadeloupe River to protect the cranes' winter home.
In drought-stricken Texas, heavy water use by chemical plants, refineries, and cities has left less fresh water for estuaries downstream, helping raise salinity levels in the coastal marsh 175 miles southwest of Houston. So environmentalists have sued state regulators to restrict water use along the river to protect the habitat of the last wild flock of whooping cranes that spend each winter there. But Dow Chemical (DOW), with a plant just upstream from the cranes, says it was there first. Citing the state’s first-come-first-served water-use regulations, Dow claims permits dating back to the 1940s allow it to use as much of the Guadalupe River’s output as it wants.

All this will be aired in federal court in December in a case that threatens to upend long-standing water rights....

Due to Texas’ historic drought, the Guadalupe’s flow is down by more than 60 percent at Victoria, roughly 20 miles upstream from the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, the cranes’ winter range. In September the refuge’s marshes were three times saltier than normal. The birds migrate from Canada each year to spend the winter feeding on crabs and berries along the Texas coast. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service counted 571 wild and captive whooping cranes in July 2010. The Aransas group makes up half that number and is the world’s last migrating flock that can sustain itself in the wild.

The coastline from just east of the cranes’ refuge to the Louisiana border bristles with the world’s largest concentration of petrochemical and refining complexes, many of which rely on river water. An association including owners of five petrochemical plants near the refuge, including Dow, DuPont (DD) and Lyondell Basell (LYB), several power plants, and a nearby steel mill, have sided with Texas authorities to defend the allocation system, while some coastal towns and businesses that rely on healthy bays and estuaries support the environmentalists.

The two sides are far apart. LaMarriol Smith, the river authority’s spokeswoman, says that giving more water to the cranes “could basically wipe out economic development, especially in the lower end of the basin.” Yet Charles Smith, a county commissioner in Aransas County, counters that his county’s economy depends on tourists who fish, hunt, and bird watch along the coast and commercial fishing that relies on proper salinity levels maintained by adequate freshwater inflows. Says Smith: “Estuaries are the most productive zones on the planet—the cradle of life—and I think our cradle is being robbed.
It should be noted that this is not a simple conflict between birds and petrochemical companies. There are residents upstream who need drinking water, and there are fishermen downstream whose livelihoods depend on healthy estuaries. Ecotourism provides an additional economic incentive to maintain the estuaries. The endangered status of the Whooping Cranes may be the legal tool used to save the marshes, but if the suit succeeds, they are unlikely to be the only beneficiaries of a change in water rights.