A Feud Over Texas Whooping Cranes

A whooping crane habitat sparks an environmental feud

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, 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. If environmentalists succeed in reshuffling rights along the Guadalupe, chemical companies say they’ll have to close plants, and cities say they won’t be able to grow. Industrial operators on other Texas rivers worry their water rights could also be challenged. “This is really about the coastal economy against the interior, where the interior is represented in the Texas water rights system and the coast isn’t,” says James B. Blackburn Jr., a Houston attorney representing environmentalists in the case.

Texans view water rights as sacred, “like motherhood and apple pie,” says Dianne Wassenich, head of an environmental group in the Guadalupe basin. Ensuring that everyone’s water needs are met while keeping enough flowing to the bay will be “much like Solomon trying to split the child,” she says.

Dow, which isn’t formally part of the suit, last spring began minimizing its water use at the plant, which produces plastics, antifreeze, polyester, and ingredients for consumer products, says spokeswoman Rebecca Bentley: “Dow has a strong focus both locally and globally on good water management and conservation, and we will continue to work with the appropriate authorities to ensure we are meeting all our environmental and regulatory requirements.”

If crane advocates prevail, the water supply to industrial facilities and cities in the watershed will be cut in half, says W.E. “Bill” West Jr., general manager of the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, which sells water rights along much of the channel. A GBRA study estimates the cumulative economic impact of such a reduction at $6.7 billion by 2060.

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 and Lyondell Basell, 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.

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