U.S. appeals court sides with refuge in Texas water fight

Dallas (AP) — The city of Dallas and state water planners have
lost a federal appeal in a case that pits future water needs
against conservation.

A ruling by the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of
Appeals filed late Thursday affirms a lower court’s finding in
support of a proposed East Texas wildlife refuge along the Neches
River.

“It’s an exciting day for wildlife conservation and for
residents throughout the state of Texas,” Jose Viramontes, a
spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said last
week.

The city and the Texas Water Development Board claimed in a 2007
lawsuit that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established the
25,000-acre refuge in 2006 without first considering environmental
and economic impacts.

They argued that the wildlife service violated federal law by
not addressing the refuge’s effects on Dallas’ water supply,
economy and future water planning. The reservoir was not scheduled
to be built until 2050.

The three-judge appellate panel saw it differently.

“They’ve affirmed we’ve done everything right,” Viramontes said,
explaining that his agency completed the necessary environmental
analysis and conducted public outreach to determine the best place
to establish a refuge.

If the city and water board don’t appeal the ruling, Chris
Bowers, first assistant city attorney in Dallas, said the decision
would prevent Dallas from going forward with plans to build Lake
Fastrill. Planned since the early 1960s, the regional water source
would supply up to 100 million gallons per day, he said.

“It was on the city’s water plan and now, assuming that the
ruling stands, the city will have to make other plans for obtaining
and providing that water to the 1.8 million customers of Dallas and
the 27 customer cities,” Bowers said.

But the appellate court wrote that the city and water board
“never committed to constructing the reservoir and may never have
done so, or may have constructed a reservoir at another site.

“Further, the effects of establishing the refuge, and thus
precluding the reservoir, are highly speculative and cannot be
shown to be the proximate cause of future water shortages in
Dallas.”

The city and water board were still assessing the court’s ruling
but will work along with the attorney general’s office to determine
what their next steps will be, Bowers said.

“That’s a very important matter to the Texas water board and we
take it very seriously,” said Leslie Anderson, a water board
spokeswoman.

The refuge is located along the upper reaches of the Neches in
Anderson and Cherokee counties.

Acquiring land for the refuge had been on hold because of the
lawsuit, but Viramontes said discussions with landowners can now
begin. He said they know of at least one very large donation that
may be a possibility.

“We’re delighted,” Janice Bezanson, executive director of the
Texas Conservation Alliance, said of the court’s ruling. “This area
is very exceptional wildlife habitat. There are a number of
alternative water supply sources that Dallas has identified that it
can tap.

“We feel it’s important that they go to other existing sources
instead of building a new reservoir because it has so much impact
on this site.”

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