Last month, millions of migratory birds that pass over South Texas each year caught a break when Baryonyx Corp. withdrew its permit applications for the GOWind offshore wind farm project in the Lower Laguna Madre region.
Baryonyx, a renewable energy company with projects in the Texas Panhandle, north central Texas and along the South Texas coast, was granted sizeable offshore leases from the Texas General Land Office and has been pursuing the approval of its permit application from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to install up to 303 wind turbines offshore of South Padre Island.
South Texas is one of the busiest migratory superhighways in the world, with millions of long-distance avian travelers in the fall trekking from the Canadian Arctic, Alaska and western Russia, heading south throughout Central and South America, then back again in the spring.
The Laguna Madre is one of only six hypersaline bays in the world and supports critical habitat for more than 300 species of birds and their food supply. This region hosts 80 percent of the world’s wintering Redhead Duck population and can, in some years, host 50 percent of the world’s breeding population of Reddish Egret, a colonial water bird species of growing concern. Within the past several years, extensive wind farms have been developed on private lands just inland of the Laguna Madre.
An offshore wind farm in this region, which was the subject of Baryonyx’s permit application, would sandwich some of the most critical migratory and wintering shorebird, waterfowl and colonial water bird habitat in the world between two wind farms.
This would cause mortality, disturbance and displacement to millions of birds and destroy pristine and protected habitat with transmission infrastructure. These cumulative effects could have broad-reaching ecological impacts.
Early claims in the environmental assessment of the GOWind project stated that migrating birds would be flying at high altitudes that would take them over the turbines and their deadly blades. Recent studies conducted inland in the same region have indicated that these migrants are actually flying at much lower altitudes and will be traveling directly in the path of the turbines. Clearly, more scientific investigation into the actual flight paths of migratory birds is needed to clarify these questions.
Additionally, research is needed to assess the potential disturbance of foraging habitat and disruption of foraging behavior for migratory and wintering birds due to the close proximity of wind farm/transmission infrastructure to the fowl flyway. The continued advancement in wind turbine design and technology should be encouraged.
Public and private organizations should support the advancement of renewable energy technology by addressing turbine design, which still looks like a giant version of the windmill on your grandfather’s farm, as well as strike-detection equipment, blade graphics and high-risk or seasonal shutdown capability. These advancements in themselves could dramatically mitigate impacts on birds and wildlife.
The temporary relief migratory birds have been granted from this potential threat is appreciated, but it will not be the last permit application Texas sees for offshore wind farms.
This momentary reprieve should be embraced as an opportunity to deliver more science and research around responsible energy development and siting of these facilities.
As a fifth-generation Texan, I am proud that Texas is a national leader in renewable and green energy production, but I do not want to see it be done haphazardly and at the expense of our natural heritage.
Brian Trusty is executive director of Audubon Texas.
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