Notes from the President

This update is reprinted from the August 2014 issue of  The ICF Bugle

In June we basked in another glorious Evening with the Cranes – how delightful to stroll our site with friends and supporters, and feast in local flavors, regional wines, and prairies in peak bloom. As with our big Anniversary Gala last year in Milwaukee, we are learning how to throw a good party in honor of all of you who make our work possible.

Much of the buzz at ICF these days is about how to grow our impact. We have an exciting and compelling mission and are positioning ourselves to fully realize our vision for the next decade – and beyond! This spring we commissioned a study to help us determine a path of growth that can best serve our mission, and how best to focus our time and funding to invest in that path. We “benchmarked” ourselves to several peer conservation groups, such as the American Bird Conservancy, Birdlife International, and Wildlife Conservation Society, and captured essential lessons learned from the various paths followed by each of the benchmark organizations. The ability to examine and compare their approaches, successes, and program impact turned out to be very valuable in helping us identify our own best pathway to the future.

The world of conservation is fraught with challenges, and we must overcome many roadblocks on our path to saving cranes and the wetlands, watersheds, and flyways they depend on. We are deeply frustrated by the latest roadblock we face – the decision by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse a lower court decision that mandated fresh-water inflows to Whooping Crane habitat on the Texas coast.

The original case, which many of our members have followed since 2010, was brought by The Aransas Project (TAP), a non-profit coalition of municipalities, businesses, and conservation organizations (including ICF) concerned about the future of the Texas coast. We contended that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) allowed too much water to be removed from the Guadalupe and San Antonio Rivers, and consequently the downstream bay salinity increased beyond what drought would cause. These actions resulted in reduced fresh drinking water and food supply for the cranes and ultimately resulted in 23 deaths, which was 8.5% of the Texas Whooping Crane flock. U.S. District Court Judge Janis Jack ruled that TCEQ violated the Endangered Species Act through their water management practices, including not exercising available emergency powers to protect the cranes. The District Court ordered TCEQ to stop granting new water use permits for the rivers until they could provide reasonable assurances that new permits would not result in harm to the Whooping Crane. TCEQ was directed to seek an Incidental Take Permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which requires development of a Habitat Conservation Plan, outlining conservation measures designed to minimize and mitigate harm to the endangered species.

In their decision to reverse that ruling, the Court of Appeals accepted that up to 23 Whooping Crane died in 2008-2009, and that the deaths were related to lack of essential food, water, and habitat requirements. However, the Court ruled that the deaths could not have been foreseen, and therefore TCEQ cannot be held liable because their authorization of water use did not consider that it would directly result in harm. In doing so, the Circuit Court ignored the alarms that scientists and concerned citizens have sounded for decades about the profound consequences of unsustainable water management, especially in drought-prone river basins like those of Texas.

This decision only reinvigorates our efforts to promote innovative and environmentally sound water management practices aimed at ensuring healthy river basins for all. As ICF’s Texas Program Manager, Liz Smith, reflects, “We must find viable solutions that apportion the limited available water throughout the coastal basins without sacrificing quality of life for its residents, or reducing the estuary ecosystems to lifeless bodies of water.” Thank you for supporting our ongoing efforts to rethink the way our precious waters are managed, to ensure a future for North America’s iconic species, the Whooping Crane – and all who value our bays and estuaries.