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The Q&A: Jim Blackburn

In this week's Q&A, we interview Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer with Blackburn Carter PC.

Jim Blackburn is an environmental lawyer and Professor in the Practice of Environmental Law in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at Rice University.

With each issue, Trib+Water brings you an interview with experts on water-related issues. Here is this week's subject:

Jim Blackburn is an environmental lawyer with Blackburn Carter PC of Houston and a professor in the Practice of Environmental Law in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at Rice University where he teaches courses in sustainable design and environmental law. At Rice, he serves as Director of the Interdisciplinary Minor in Energy and Water Sustainability, is co-director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center, and is a Faculty Scholar for Energy Studies at the Baker Institute. The second edition of his tribute to the Texas coast, titled The Book of Texas Bays, is being published by Texas A&M Press this Fall.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Water: What kind of suits are you involved with currently?

Jim Blackburn: Here at Blackburn Carter, I am involved primarily with suits on behalf of citizens about various aspects of environmental protection. We have the Aransas Project litigation that has been decided by the 5th Circuit. We will file a motion for rehearing on that. That case involves the whooping cranes.

We have a Goliad uranium mining litigation that is kind of an ongoing dispute. We’re trying to work out details with the EPA. But, so far, EPA has been responsive to a federal lawsuit we filed. We have a state lawsuit pending against the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

I’m working with Matagorda Bay to try to enhance freshwater inflows, basically the same issue we’ve been working for with the Aransas Project.

Trib+Water: On a couple of those things, the big issue is environmental flows. What is the interplay between healthy environmental flows and water planning in general?

Blackburn: Environmental inflows and water planning are, obviously, very directly related. Part of the problem is that, for many years, Texas thought water was wasted if it got to the coastal bays. And we’ve been really fighting against that ever since I started practicing environmental law. And it has really become important in the 21st century as we have learned more and more about the harm that we are doing.

Nueces Bay has been declared ecologically dead because of the dams that were placed on the Nueces River and the reductions in freshwater inflows. The next threatened bay up the list is San Antonio Bay because of the inflows from the Guadalupe and San Antonio river systems. They’re the next major rivers.

And then the Colorado inflows to Matagorda Bay. And so we’re just moving up the coast. As you get to Galveston Bay and Sabine Lake, they have greater inflows and their problems are a little further in the future.

But the lessons learned so far is, in 2000, we dried up the Rio Grande. We can kill a river. We can kill a bay. I don’t think we’re being creative in our water planning and I don’t think we’re being smart in our water planning. There’s a number of things that can be done differently that I think would make a big difference.

Trib+Water: Could you maybe give us a handful of things where you would want to see different practices?

Blackburn: For one thing, the state of Texas does not charge anything for the surface water. And that water has a cost. When you kill a bay, you have destroyed the shrimp fishery, the oyster fishery. You have destroyed the recreational fishery associated with that bay.

And all of those have dollar value. We don’t calculate any dollar value to these “lost environmental goods.” Full cost pricing of water is a key thing. If we had the price of water right, I think you would see less use of surface water and much more use of alternative sources, such as desalination, for example.

Right now, desalting is generally considered to be more expensive than surface water use. But I did some calculations on the San Antonio Bay system, and, frankly, I think that a new reservoir on the Guadalupe River costs about $6 per thousand gallons if you calculate the full cost of the lost fishery.

That’s more expensive than reverse osmosis water supply. If we get the price right, then it’ll force us to alternatives that have less impact. Basically, it’s about getting the equation balanced and understanding exactly what our tradeoffs are and trying to make well-informed, smart decisions.

Trib+Water: You mentioned before the traditional view that if a river makes it all the way to the bay, it’s wasted water. Do you find the newer ways to think about water are breaking through to the public at large, that we need to rethink our approach?

Blackburn: I think we’ve done a poor job as environmentalists and coastal fishermen in putting the story forward. So much of the time, it’s put in terms of a spiritual relationship or a love of the coast as opposed to hard dollars and cents. I have found in Houston — which is a very tough town from an environmental standpoint —if I can talk dollars, I can have a conversation with anyone in Houston.

It’s sort of a breakthrough concept for me. It’s sort of like, well, duh, talk money. And a lot of environmentalists feel it’s dirty to talk money but, frankly, I’ve gotten more traction talking money than I have anything else.

Trib+Water: With the Matagorda Bay action, what is next on the agenda for you?

Blackburn: We’re going to make either a petition for rule changes or comments on the Water Development Board rules structure for that $2 billion SWIFT fund that we’ve set up for water projects in Texas. Trying to incorporate full cost pricing both into the selection of alternatives for funding with the state money and also with regard to the issuing of permits, to consider cost of water as part of the permitting process.

Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, the whooping crane are both endangered species. We think that, unfortunately, we may have to resort more and more to endangered species concerns and claims.

We’ve had a setback at the 5th Circuit, but we consider that only a temporary setback. I would rather not use federal endangered species law. But if that’s all we’ve got, you will see endangered species litigation being used.

Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles eat crabs. Whooping cranes eat crabs. Crabs require freshwater inflows. It’s almost that simple.

The people of Texas need to get a lot smarter about water choices because the infrastructure we put in place in the next few years will dictate what we do for the next 50 to 100 years. There’s some real important decisions that we need to get right and we need the best information that we can get. And we need to talk money.

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