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Battle for the birds

By Whitney Burbank, WhitneyB@kvia.com
Published On: Jul 17 2013 11:27:19 PM CDT
Updated On: Jul 18 2013 02:17:16 AM CDT

ABC-7's Whitney Burbank reports

EL PASO, Texas -

El Paso Water Improvement District No. 1 began removing charred brush after a fire broke out in the Upper Valley, but environmental activists say EPCIWD1 is destroying the area's ecosystem and violating an international agreement. 

"You used hear the birds chirping carrying on. It was really great, but now you don't hear anything," said Upper Valley resident Melissa Sargent. "It's just dead sounding." Sargent said her neighborhood has gone silent since EPCIWD1 started ripping up the salt cedar around a drain near the New Mexico, Texas border. 

Jesus Reyes, EPCIWD1 general manager, said he's simply getting rid of dangerous debris many residents clamored to have removed following the brush fire. "We're just looking out for life and property of all those people that live on both sides of that drain," said Reyes. 

Environmental activist Jim Tolbert doesn't see it that way, "There's a possibility they're harming endangered species like the Southwestern Willow Fly Catcher." Tolbert goes further, alleging the cleanup could violate an international agreement known as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

"Basically, (the treaty) says that you can't kill another nations bird," explained Tolbert. "What birds might we have around here that come from other places? There are Grackles and other migratory birds."

Fourteen-year licensed wildlife rehabilitator Josie Karam said the timing of the cleanup is more detrimental to birds than the brush removal, which according to Karam, began in the middle of nesting season.

"It's not the time to cut trees. It's not the time to disturb nature. This could have been done in the winter when there were no nests," said Karam. "Where was the forethought in all of this?"

According to Reyes no environmental consulting was done in order to expedite the cleanup. "It's been so dry. There could be a chance it could all go up in flames. I didn't want go through that and have someone's home burn down because we didn't move fast enough."

As of July, El Paso County remains under a burn ban due to dry conditions. Reyes maintains his priority is preventing another brush fire. "There are many trees in that area where birds could...set up their nests again," said Reyes. "My concern, again, is life and property."

Tolbert admitted he doesn't truly know an endangered Southwestern Willow Fly Catcher was killed, or if any birds have died as a result of the brush removal. "I mean don't know if Jimmy Hoffa is really dead," joked Tolbert. "But you had trees and vegetation, you had the water and that's where birds like to nest. So you know they were in there." 

"It would take going through all that debris to prove they actually killed those animals, but there's no doubt in my mind they did," said Karam.

"They have not maintained the canal like the should have. These people are saying it's a fire hazard. It was a fire hazard...The county water district failed horribly."

According to Reyes, "maintenance wasn't being done," due to years of confusion over city and county responsibilities.. Reyes said, until the fire broke out, it was not clear the area along the drain belonged to EPCIWD1.

Residents would like to see a long term land management program and the scorched salt cedars replaced with native trees. 

In a July 8 email to Tolbert, Reyes wrote:

I am not interested in replanting native vegetation. The drain will be maintained the proper way, the way the City of El Paso and EPWU are required to do so, this is an agriculture drain and not a habitat.

Reyes said he maintains his stance outlined in the email 

According to Reyes, EPCIWD1 drain maintenance responsibilities could be moved to the city as soon as September.

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