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Water | Fresh Water Fight

You are here: Water » Features » Fresh Water Fight- Part Four
Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4


Wesley Blevins

Shrimper, seafood purveyor, and water activist Wesley Blevins holds up a large Gulf white shrimp at his seafood shop, Chucky Monkey's in Seadrift. Some shrimp on the Gulf Coast are being found with a condition called black gill. While not harmful, the condition is thought to be caused by stress and too little freshwater in the bays. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Fresh Water Fight- Part Four

San Antonio Current
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
December 24, 2003

Part 4 of the Current's series on the Guadalupe River.
How 185 endangered whooping cranes are a key to Texas' water policy.

"What was it that started limiting pumping of the Edwards Aquifer up by San Antonio?" Tom Stehn asks one morning, pausing briefly while unpacking boxes in his new office in the basement of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge headquarters.

"It was the Endangered Species Act," Stehn says, answering his own question. "The Hill Country had to realize they couldn't pump forever. I'm afraid it's the same down here. In the end, the Endangered Species Act will determine how much is pumped here. You hate to force it with the Endangered Species Act. That's not the issue. The issue is sharing a limited resource, and limited is the key."

Stehn knows the issue well. As the United States Fish & Wildlife Service's Whooping Crane Coordinator, his primary task is setting policy that will get the Whooping Crane off the endangered list. And from where he sits, state water laws are obstructing that goal. If Texas legislators won't tackle the hard issues, he says with a reluctant sigh, the God Squad, i.e. the Endangered Species Act, will step in.

Of all the water battles being fought in the Guadalupe River basin, the least understood and easiest to explain is the one over freshwater inflow to bays and estuaries. Simply put: No freshwater means no shrimp, no redfish, no seafood, no sport or commercial fishing.

Bays need freshwater to make all that happen.

And of all the competing special interests in these fights, it is 185 part-time residents who winter over in Texas who may be the biggest players of all. Their presence - or disappearance - could crumble the cornerstone of the Region L water plan for South Central Texas, as well as other related projects to move water from the Guadalupe to where it is needed most.

The 185 are the world's only wild flock of Whooping Cranes, the tallest birds in North America and Texas' most celebrated endangered species who rank with California condors, Florida manatees, grizzly bears, and peregrine falcons as national symbols of conservation and mankind's successful efforts to save wildlife from extinction. Having rebounded from a population of 15 in 1941, these snow-white big birds with black wing tips are the most famous residents of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge near Austwell, about 30 miles north of Rockport. As such, they are the most formidable foes water hustlers face.

A lanky 54-year-old with a full beard, Stehn works with a Canadian counterpart to monitor the 185 cranes who fly 2,400 miles every spring to spend their summers in the Northwest Territories, 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle before migrating back south to the Coastal Bend every October.

On the Texas coast, the cranes' meal of choice is blue crab, which thrive in the state's bays and estuaries. Stehn has observed the link. "When blue crab's not available, there are other foods to eat, but they're not as nutritious. The cranes lose energy reserves, making the migration more difficult, their mortality rate increases, and birth rates drop in Canada in the summer. If we're going to maintain the population we need to do everything to maintain the blue crab population, and blue crab does better when there's fresh water inflow and sediments. When there's a drought, the blue crab population crashes. When there are less blue crabs, the species declines towards extinction."

Although the Whooper population increased 4 percent during the 1990s, the numbers have been dropping since 2000. There are other factors leading to their demise, including collisions with power lines, but blue crabs and are key, Stehn says.

The ball is in Texas' courts. "They're trying to get water for the next 50 years, but they don't realize how limited the supply really is. It's the old rhetoric of putting a bird ahead of people. I say people want the Whooping Cranes to survive and thrive. I say let's manage the resource so we can take care of both. I don't know how else to answer that. Ecotourism should be looked at as another economy. But it's not. We've got $5 million a year coming into Rockport from tourists who want to see Whooping Cranes."

Three years ago, the San Marcos River Foundation applied for water rights to 1.15 million acre feet for conservation and ecology - the minimum for a healthy San Antonio Bay, according to studies conducted by Texas Parks & Wildlife Department studies. But the GBRA, municipal water companies, and other water industry interests opposed the foundation's application, which was backed by more than 15 other organizations.

The San Marcos River Foundation is a 200-member organization that formed 18 years ago to advocate for the San Marcos River, which joins the Guadalupe near Gonzales. If the application has been granted, their water right to guarantee instream flow would be placed in the Texas Water Trust to be administered by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.

The Power of Water

The Guadalupe is ground zero in Texas' 21st-century water wars, with practically every fight directly tied to satisfying the needs of San Antonio's 1.5 million residents and the region's determination to grow the economy and the population. Four areas in particular tell of tale how contentious the quest for water really is:

Kinney County, where groundwater from the unregulated western portion of the Edwards Aquifer has been targeted by at least four water marketing/water mining companies with extensive ties to the political leadership of the state.

Canyon Lake, where the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority (GBRA) has applied to take twice as much water out of the lake than is currently being used, and to siphon from other sources, primarily in the Guadalupe River basin;

Victoria, where the GBRA, San Antonio River Authority, and SAWS are proposing to build the longest water pipeline in Texas all the way back to San Antonio;

San Antonio Bay and the Guadalupe Delta, where the river meets the sea, and where the state has thwarted efforts to set a minimum flow of water to ensure the health of the coastal fisheries and wildlife.

At the urging of several municipalities, water industry groups, and authorities including the GBRA, which subsequently applied for all other unappropriated water rights in the Guadalupe basin, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst successfully persuaded the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality to dismiss the application, arguing the state was the proper authority to set freshwater inflow minimums.

Bill West, who is on Dewhurst's new committe studying the issue, says the minimum inflow determined by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department was arbitrary. "The health and well-being of the bays and estuaries is just as important as the health and well being of Comal Springs and San Marcos Springs," West says. "From a pure hydrologic standpoint, Comal and San Marcos Springs and the freshwater in-flow to the bays and estuaries is basically one and the same. That's the importance of this regional plan, to try to see that the Comal/San Marcos Springs continues. The inability to see that spells the destruction of the bays and estuaries. So for those people that say we're not concerned with bays and estuaries, that is the very inherent target of the whole regional plan."

Diane Wassenich, the gray-haired former restaurant owner who is president of SMRF, was upbeat despite the setback. "We got farther than we ever dreamed," she says. If nothing else, the issue was brought into public view.

"The Legislature spent millions over 35 years to study this. Now, no one wants to believe it. We've appropriated all our water and even over appropriated our water. We don't want to face that. We have got to figure out how to make sure our rivers will continue to flow. And there is nothing in place."

A dollar value of San Antonio Bay has been pegged at $55 million a year by Texas Parks & Wildlife. Robert Costanza, director and founder of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont, and cofounder of the International Society for Ecological Economics, calculates the value of an estuary to be $11,000 an acre per year. Using those values, the bay that the Guadalupe flows into is worth $2 billion annually in productivity.

Any reduction of freshwater coming into the bay has considerable economic impact, which refutes the common belief that any water that reaches the bay without being used is wasted.

GBRA, SAWS, and SARA are trying to address those concerns with two studies that they will oversee. GBRA has commissioned R. Douglas Slack of Texas A&M to conduct a five-year, $1.3 million study to determine the relationships between freshwater inflow, blue crabs, and Whooping Cranes, while SARA has commissioned George Ward of the University of Texas a five year, $1.5 million study of San Antonio Bay inflow in order to evaluate the biological productivity of the bays and the estuary to determine the freshwater requirements necessary to support their ecosystems.

Diane Wassenich

Diane Wassenich (center), executive director of the San Marcos River Foundation stands on the bank of the San Marcos River with current and former members of the foundation's board of directors. From left: Jack Fairchild, Alan Groeger, Ann Allen, Theresa Kosary, Tom Wassenich, and John Tolbert. The 200-member SMRF was formed almost two decades ago to advocate for the San Antonio River. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

That gives Tom Stehn hope the God Squad won't be called in.

"We'd like to see environmental considerations done at an early stage. One of the problems with the Texas Water Plan is the environment got short shrift. I bet there weren't a lot of biologists being talked to. Now they'll have to prove their case that the project won't impact endangered species.

"Our political system has a tough time dealing with issues 50 years down the road," Stehn adds. "We've never set aside, much less acknowledged environmental flow. If factories were taking oxygen out of the air, we'd regulate them. This is the same. When you look at the cost of water, you need to look at the real cost, what it takes to maintain the ecology. The crane's role in this scenario is more than just something for birdwatchers to look at."

A year ago in November, Greg Rothe, general manager of the San Antonio River Authority, General Eugene Habiger, the president and CEO of the San Antonio Water System, and Bill West, the general manager of the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, extolled the virtues of the Lower Guadalupe Water Supply Project in a press release announcing environmental impact studies of a pipeline project from the Gulf Coast to Bexar County.

Habiger praised the studies: "The actions this week signal the start of one of the most significant water resource projects approved for this region," he said. "We are going to do the right thing with this project. We all recognize that we all need to view future water needs on a regional basis because we are all linked environmentally, economically and socially."

Public declarations like the above tout regional cooperation and forward-thinking planning so that San Antonio and South Central Texas can grow and prosper over the next 50 years.

This month's trip down the Guadalupe River showed a very different take on the planning process from the other end of the faucet, voiced by folks not ready to say goodbye to their river.

Somewhere between the two opposing points of view lies reality.

Regardless of the mandates and the responses, a significant number of players have been left out of the process. At the same time, the barn door has been left wide open to make it easy for those who write the laws, carry them out, and lobby the lawmakers for profit.

If Texas legislators won't tackle the hard issues, the God Squad, i.e. the Endangered Species Act, will step in.

Lawyers and lobbyists have better access to the ears of lawmakers than the average citizen - while fishing, shrimping, recreational interests, and the Whooping Crane have been underrepresented at the bargaining table or eliminated altogether. There's a distinct sense the planning process will continue to be dominated by people who want to treat water like a commodity.

If the people of Texas want sound statewide water policy, a good place to start would be a more stringent code of ethics for state legislators. Our lawmakers must be held to a higher standard than the current one that allows former State Senator Buster Brown to profit from the laws he wrote.

Local government bodies such as groundwater conservation districts should be given the final say on local matters, not the legislature. And if there's local consensus that moving water for a profit will benefit a community, let it flow.

Extend the Edwards' Aquifer Authority's reach into Kinney County, which only the legislature can do. If water is moved out of the area, the EAA is a conscientious overseer.

While agriculture has historically been the biggest user of groundwater in Kinney County and elsewhere in Texas, farming shouldn't be abandoned altogether in favor of water mining. Uncommon produce such as ugli fruit, wine grapes, and other specialty crops including lavender and organic versions of conventional vegetables fetch considerably higher prices at the market. A little creativity might preserve the tradition while benefitting local consumers.

If there's a need to mine water, Kinney County landowners and San Antonio water users would be better served if property owners leased or sold their water rights directly to SAWS or Bexar Met to gain control of the flow from source to faucets. The current legal setup encourages the same kind of exploitation at any cost that occurred when private energy companies such as Enron, Reliant, Duke Energy, and Williams conspired to manipulate prices and gouge California consumers.

If the market system remains the preferred means of conducting water business, quantify lakes and rivers for their recreational value as well as their water storage value before sacrificing them. Put a number on being the primary nursery for fish, shrimp, oysters, crabs, and hundreds of species of marine, shore, and land life residing in the bay and the Gulf.

Tom Stehn

Tom Stehn, Whooping Crane coordinator for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, follows a flock of birds with his binoculars while standing in a marsh on the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Stehn is concerned about changes to freshwater quality and flow into the coastal bays and its effects on the delicate ecosystems. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Consider restructuring how river authorities operate. Currently, the governor appoints the directors of Texas' river authorities. Typically, they are people in leadership positions in their respective communities. But appointments are too often made based on political patronage than water expertise, which leads to boards rubber-stamping management.

Electing directors instead of appointing them would improve relations with the electorate. The GBRA could also make it clear when projects are announced that buyers on the other end of the pipe must cut consumption during drought periods just as lake and river users must, golf courses included.

There's a price for appropriating more water than exists, and it's already being felt in the Guadalupe basin. "Texas has the best knowledge and understanding of its basins, rivers, bays, and estuaries, better than any state," says Andrew Sansom, the former executive director of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. "The data is there. The problem is translating the known science into policy, especially in the Texas Legislature, where policy is currently dominated by lobbyists representing special interests. No one speaks up for the Whooping Crane, the small landowner."

San Antonio and El Paso, two of the state's most water-short cities, are Texas' most conservation-oriented cities when it comes to water. The future of the Guadalupe River, Canyon Lake, San Antonio Bay, and how Texas deals with water can be glimpsed on the Chihuahuan Desert where the city of El Paso and the sister city of Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico have formed a metropolis of more than 2 million people in a valley between two dry mountain ranges. El Paso has the strictest water conservation measures in place in Texas. St. Augustine grass is discouraged and outright banned in some instances, city water cops scan curbs for signs of runoff, issuing fines to violators.

"The problem is translating the known science into policy, especially in the Texas Legislature, where policy is currently dominated by lobbyists representing special interests. No one speaks up for the Whooping Crane, the small landowner."
- Andrew Sansom

In other words, El Paso is even more water short than San Antonio. It too is looking to pipelines and water mining to make ends meet. But El Paso has also already stepped into the future with a $67 million plant that will be the largest inland desalination project in the United States when it goes online in late 2005. Several pilot desalination projects are being planned on the Texas coast, prompted by Governor Rick Perry's proposal to use tax-free investment bonds to finance local plants. The cost of desal water, $1.75 per thousand gallons, is higher than water piped from the Guadalupe or groundwater well fields, but isn't saddled with hidden secondary costs such as loss of tax base or residual impacts such as leases, construction cost overruns, and legal expenses that are part of the cost of obtaining river and groundwater.

Similarly, Region L planners would be wise to budget several million dollars to offer real incentives for rural homeowners to get off wells and convert to rainwater catchment systems. The expense of such systems, which are common on water-scarce Caribbean islands, presently runs as high as $20,000-30,000 per home. The upside is homes equipped with catchment systems reduces demand on existing water supplies as well as prompts each household to be more responsible for their water use. In that respect, catchment systems do away with what amounts to water welfare.

A larger philosophical question begs to be addressed as well. Water as the New Oil may sound good in theory, but ignores the fact water is a resource that belongs to every person in Texas. Water is life. Two years ago, a high-ranking state bureaucrat mentioned Enron lobbyists had a significant hand in writing water legislation in the 1997, 1999, and 2001 legislative sessions, back when the now-bankrupt company was eyeing water markets as a lucrative revenue stream.

Water deserves to be treated more honestly, fairly, equitably and ethically than that. A good start would be the Texas Supreme Court or the Texas Legislature eliminating rule of capture.

As laudable as the planning process has been, those left out need to be included. "This Region L spent more money on public input and public meetings than any region in the state," Bill West says. Still, West admits Calhoun County, where shrimping is a major industry, had no representation on the region planning board. Nor did Canyon Lake interests. Deal them in. Aquaculture and recreation count, no matter what anyone says.

Regional planning suggests regional cooperation. Instead, local groups are fighting the state, the river authority, and private water purveyors, and fighting each other. Victoria folks wonder why San Antonio needs their water when Canyon Lake is so much closer and has all that excess capacity that has caused flooding downstream. Friends of Canyon Lake representatives suggest there's enough groundwater in Kinney County to meet San Antonio's needs for decades.

Everyone will have to give up a little. Who is going to give up a lot remains to be seen. "The Guadalupe system is the system that's going to force all these issues to come to a head," says water attorney Jim Blackwood. "The data is there. If the state chooses to ignore that data, someone will have to get hurt before the public wakes up. That someone is likely to be in the Guadalupe basin. San Antonio's had a heck of a deal up until now. I understand why its citizens are loathe to pay as much as they're going to have to pay. They didn't give the rest of us any rebates when they had all that free water."

Part 1: A Force of Nature
Part 2: Down The Drain
Part 3: The Dead Zone
Part 4: Fresh Water Fight

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