Officials: Water quality affected by development
A proposal to add four salamander species living in Travis and Williamson counties to the endangered species list has garnered opposition from many local government officials, residents and landowners.
The Austin Blind, Jollyville Plateau, Salado and Georgetown salamanders have stirred debate in the area for nearly a year as many believe putting the amphibians on the list will hinder development.
“It could have a negative impact on the county. We’re looking at different options and different ways to deal with the issue,” Williamson County Commissioner Valerie Covey said.
In an Aug. 21 news release, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended adding the salamanders to the federal register and designating nearly 6,000 acres in Travis, Williamson and Bell counties as critical habitats because of water quality concerns. The official proposal for the listing was made Aug. 22.
“The Edwards Aquifer is an important water source not only for these four salamander species, but also for those living and working in the area,” Adam Zerrenner, USFWS Austin Field Office supervisor said in the release. “Efforts to improve and conserve the water and springs associated with the Edwards Aquifer will help ensure a healthy future for our community and the plants and animals that depend upon the Edwards Aquifer.”
County officials expressed opposition to USFWS’s proposal. Several entities, including the Commissioners Court, the Georgetown and Leander school districts and the cities of Georgetown, Round Rock, Cedar Park and Leander have approved resolutions against the listing.
U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-District 31, has also voiced his dissent, including introducing legislation July 26 that would delay the listing.
The Williamson County Conservation Foundation has been the scientific arm of the opposition and allocated approximately $650,000 for research into the salamanders’ habits and habitats. Currently, Southwestern University professor Ben Pierce and his team are two-and-a-half years into a five-year study. SWCA Environmental Consultants of Austin have also contributed research.
Pierce’s research on the Georgetown salamander shows the amphibians live in water and migrate very little. Despite concerns of how construction affects the species, salamander populations have been found in small bodies of water near development, including underneath a Toll 45 bridge. Covey said she believes the evidence proves the salamanders are not threatened.
“We believe fully that when the science is really viewed in the process ... that the service would definitely not list the salamanders,” she said.
U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., House Committee on Natural Resources chairman, inspected a salamander population at Avery Ranch Spring on Sept. 5 and concluded what scientific research had been done did not support listing the salamanders.
“In many cases, there is not enough scientific work behind the species. We want to make sure we protect them the right way, with the right evidence,” he said.
Other research done by the Texas Salamander Coalition, a nonprofit formed to represent landowners if the salamanders are listed, suggests the Jollyville Plateau, Georgetown and Salado salamanders are one species. Based on DNA evidence, researchers funded by TSC concluded the three species are the same despite different physical attributes.
If the salamanders are only one species, their combined numbers could be enough to keep them off the endangered list and render their designated critical habitats unnecessary. Currently, TSC is requesting an independent study with researchers outside Texas to verify its findings.
Approximately 450 county residents also attended a public forum held by USFWS on Sept. 5 to include their opposition to the listing, voicing concerns that it would raise tax rates and infringe on private property rights.
“What began as a law to protect the bald eagle has morphed into an antidevelopment device,” county land and business owner David Wolf said.
Supporting the salamanders
On the other side of the debate, USFWS claims that “the most significant threat to the four salamander species appears to be the degradation of habitat in the form of reduced water quality and quantity and disturbance of spring sites,” according to information on its website. Recent drought conditions and increased construction are allegedly shrinking the salamanders’ habitat sites, USFWS said.
“[There are] concerns that in certain areas of the species’ range that water withdrawn out of the aquifer would reduce the amount of spring habitat for the species and also diminish the quality of some of the aquifer habitat of the species, too,” Zerrenner said.
Other concerns include possible pollutants, byproducts and waste from construction sites.
“Construction within a watershed could impact sensitive features within the watershed that could serve as recharge areas for the aquifer,” Zerrenner said. “Additionally, the development could cause pollution to go into the aquifer and the springs that would potentially be bad for the species.”
The center of the issue for Williamson County lies with development restrictions that would be imposed if USFWS successfully designates critical habitats, defined as areas essential for the protection of a threatened species. When an area is designated, any construction must be reviewed to determine if it would harm the protected species before any development can begin.
Despite USFWS’s claims about the impact of construction on water quality, Birkman said the evidence does not add up.
“The presumption is that if you have growth, you have poor water quality, and poor water quality kills salamanders,” Birkman said. “What we’ve been trying to do is to actually test that science to see if that’s true, and so far, our science has said that’s not true.”
A final decision on the listing will be made by Aug. 22, 2013. USFWS is accepting public comment on the listing until Oct. 22. For more information, visit www.fws.gov/southwest.