The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority (“GBRA”) and The Aransas Project (“TAP”) have buried the hatchet and developed a plan to jointly explore solutions to meet water supply and environmental needs in the Guadalupe River system.
The two entities spent years in litigation over the impact of Guadalupe River water use on whooping cranes that winter at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. In 2010, TAP filed a lawsuit against the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. GBRA joined the suit as an intervenor defendant. In 2013, a federal judge found in favor of TAP, but that decision was reversed by the appellate court in June 2014. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a request to hear the case. (For more on the litigation, see “Court of Appeals Reverses Texas Whooping Crane Decision,” JOW September 14, 2014 and “Whooping Crane Decision Checks Texas into Hotel California,” Hydrowonk Blog, March 14, 1013).
When they announced their recent coming together, GBRA and TAP released a white paper, which could also be characterized as a good-faith agreement. The parties intend to build on common ground and work toward resolution in areas where they remain in disagreement. The bulk of the document outlines solutions and areas for research to meet GBRA and TAP’s shared vision of the Guadalupe River system.
Within that shared vision, they intend to address water supply development and environmental concerns equally and simultaneously. While the water supply development has been well-studied, there are concerns about the health of the river system and San Antonio Bay, especially in light of population growth and changing land use patterns.
As they chart a path forward, GBRA and TAP have agreed to investigate 10 specific focal areas:
- Water Re-Allocation and Management: includes ensuring that water taken from human use for environmental purposes is replaced in a timely manner, identifying existing water supplies that could be made available for sale or lease for the environment, and studying the impact that reuse of wastewater has on instream flows in the river system and freshwater inflows to the Guadalupe Estuary;
- The True Value of Water: includes advocating for water utilities to include a commodity charge for the water they provide and noting the need for research to quantify and assign monetary value to the decrease in productivity of marine life during periods of low river flows;
- Market Based Mechanisms to Provide Additional Base Flow Generated through Watershed Improvements: includes undertaking research to determine whether an ecosystem services transaction system within the watershed would increase the availability of water supplies during dry conditions;
- Climate Change—The Potential for Droughts More Severe and Prolonged Than the Drought of Record: includes reconsidering past assumptions about climate conditions and determining how land and water management strategies need to be developed to fit projected changes in climate;
- Sea Level Rise: includes comprehensive study of the impact of potential sea level rise within the San Antonio Bay complex, with an eye toward long-term habitat protection and the migration of storm surges;
- Guadalupe River Delta Preservation and Restoration: includes completing an analysis of possible change and impacts to improve the environment, including consideration of the long-term potential for habitat improvement;
- Whooping Crane Habitat: includes identifying what lands may be lost to sea level rise and what lands may be available for habitat expansion to meet the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s goal of conserving 125,000 acres for whooping cranes;
- Sea Turtle Habitat: includes determining the extent to which the endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle uses the Guadalupe Estuary and associated bays and the potential for developing a management plan to benefit the sea turtle;
- Freshwater Mussels: includes studying the extent to which freshwater mussels are present in the Guadalupe River and the potential for developing a species management plan;
- Marine Seawater and Brackish Groundwater Desalination: includes prioritizing the Gulf of Mexico as a primary source for future municipal and industrial water supplies and working to ensure that desalinated water supplies are integrated in regional supplies in a timely and cost competitive manner.
GBRA and TAP intend to pursue federal, state and private funding to implement the outlined activities.
The white paper was signed by GBRA General Manager Bill West, Jr. and TAP board member Jim Blackburn, who is also former attorney of record for the group, at a ceremony on February 24, 2016.
“GBRA and TAP have many differences that were demonstrated in a bitter, long-running lawsuit. But both sides recognize that we are going to have to rise above the fray and start making ‘real’ progress on the issues that affect the Guadalupe River system,” West said, adding, “This white paper represents that commitment to find viable solutions for our mutual interests.”
Blackburn said, “TAP is committed to working with GBRA to find a path forward. This is a difficult step for each of us.” But, he added, “We are used to fighting and distrusting one another. We are now working to develop trust and a positive working relationship.”
The two entities are now working on developing plans for stakeholder involvement and grant proposals.
Written by Marta L. Weismann