An appeals court temporarily lifted a judge’s order blocking Texas from issuing permits for a river system that supplies cities and industrial users in a dispute over protecting an endangered flock of whooping cranes.
The U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which issued today’s order at the request of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, also said it would expedite the state’s appeal of a lower court’s March 11 ruling that forbids the approval of new permits for the Guadalupe, San Antonio or Blanco rivers.
“Today’s order halts the lower court’s flawed decision -- and stops Texas from being coerced into a costly federal permitting regime,” Lauren Bean, a spokeswoman for Abbott, said in an e-mail. “Equally important, the emergency stay is a huge win for the farmers, ranchers, and communities along these Texas rivers who would have been irreparably harmed if the district court’s order had taken effect.”
U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack in Corpus Christi said in her March 11 ruling that state regulators violated federal wildlife protections by failing to monitor how much water cities and industrial users took from the rivers during droughts.
According to evidence at a 2011 trial, so much water was siphoned from the rivers during the 2009 drought that 23 birds, or 8.5 percent of the Texas whooping crane flock, died because insufficient freshwater flowed into the coastal marsh where the birds spend winter.
The five-foot-tall whooping crane was believed to be extinct until a flock of 15 survivors was found on an isolated stretch of Texas coastal marsh in the 1940s. There are about 500 whooping cranes alive today, according to trial evidence, with a flock of about 250 birds that migrates between Texas and Canada. That flock is the only self-sustaining wild population.
Abbott asked the appeals court to put Jack’s March 11 order on hold after Jack refused to delay blocking new river permits.
The whooping cranes share a coastline with the world’s largest concentration of refineries and petrochemical plants, which stretches from their refuge eastward to the Louisiana border. Dow Chemical Co.’s Seadrift plant, one of the largest water users on the river system, sits across the bay from the refuge.
The appellate court scheduled oral argument in the case for August.
“That greatly accelerates the timetable for getting this heard,” James Blackburn Jr., a lawyer for the coalition of coastal tourism and environmental interests who sued to protect the cranes, said today in a telephone interview. “For us that’s good news.”
The case is Aransas Project v. Shaw, 2:10-cv-00075, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Texas (Corpus Christi) and 13-40317, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit (New Orleans).