Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Ruling on Water Policy Could Be Felt Across the State

All photos by Donald Auderer.

Whooping Cranes return to Aransas for Winter 2009.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is tasked with safeguarding the state’s natural resources, but this week a federal judge found the Agency responsible for the deaths of 23 rare whooping cranes.

The TCEQ’s management of water flows into the Guadalupe River lead to the deaths by not allowing enough freshwater into the river, raising its levels of salinity, according to U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack.

Judge Jack found that the Agency’s actions are a violation of the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Her order mandates that the TCEQ create a habitat conservation plan for the cranes and bars the state from issuing any new water permits on the rivers without federal oversight.

But the ruling may influence water management in Texas well beyond the Guadalupe River.

“I think that what we’ve seen in this ruling is a warning that if we don’t get serious about protecting the environmental flows in our rivers and streams, than we invite the federal government to become involved in the management of surface water in every basin where endangered species are present,” Andrew Sansom, head of the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, told StateImpact Texas.

Sansom presented expert testimony for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the TCEQ. He said he hoped the decision would put a spotlight on the issue of environmental flows as lawmakers debate funding for the state water plan.

“It’s really as much a business issue as it is as much an environmental issue,” Sansom said. “Because if we want to continue to use the surface water for economic purposes, we’re going to have to protect the environment so that these kind of cases do not become roadblocks to continued economic development in the state.”

For its part, the TCEQ is considering an appeal. In a statement, the agency called the case “an unconstitutional attempt to use the Endangered Species Act as cover for rewriting the Texas Water Code.”

The TCEQ “intends to expeditiously seek relief from the court’s action enjoining the agency from approving or granting new water right permits,” said the statement.


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