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Barton Springs water quality declined according to study of long-term trends

Wednesday, June 7, 2000 by

SOS Alliance and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agree on threat to water quality

On Sunday night the Save Our Springs Alliance (SOSA) will celebrate 10 years of activism on behalf of Barton Springs, but a new report casts doubt about the health of the springs. Development has caused water quality in Barton Springs to decline significantly over the past 25 years, according to a report done by the city's Watershed Protection Department (WPD). In a memo to the City Council, WPD Director Mike Heitz noted that the study found a significant decrease in dissolved oxygen in the springs, as well as an increase in sulfates and turbidity or cloudiness of the water. "Increase in conductivity and sulfates…may be an early indication of ongoing long-term changes in spring chemistry. We have observed that these two parameters are typically elevated in springs in small urbanized watersheds as compared to similar springs in undeveloped watersheds," Heitz' memo says.

Mark Kirkpatrick, a zoology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and "the science guy" for SOSA, said conductivity is a measure of how much matter is dissolved in the water. Conductivity is also related to the amount of salt in water, he said.

Bill Bunch, SOSA's chief counsel, said, "To me, (the report) documents several pollutant trends that are pretty alarming and makes it clear we have a problem, even though the council is estimating that impervious cover in the ( Barton Springs) Zone is less than 5 percent.

The most alarming trend noted in the report, according to several environmentalists, is the decline in dissolved oxygen. The median dissolved oxygen has decreased 16 percent over the last 25 years, from 6.8 milligrams/liter to 5.7 milligrams/liter, the report says. The oxygen levels become especially low when spring levels are low, for example during recent dry conditions. The report notes that the dissolved oxygen has been "below four milligrams per liter 11 percent of the time during an approximately four-year period."

Bunch told In Fact Daily, "The state water quality standard for dissolved oxygen is 5 mg/liter. Aquatic life, especially near the bottom and near the mouth of the springs, which is where the salamanders are, are facing low dissolved oxygen, critically low. It definitely heightens our concerns that we're not looking at pollution down the road. We're looking at it right here and right now."

The process that results in lower dissolved oxygen levels for the Barton Springs Salamander and other aquatic creatures begins with increased nitrogen and phosphorus in the water–nutrients–both of which are elevated an estimated 50 percent over what they were 20 years ago, Bunch said.

The study notes "increasing trends in concentrates of sulfates…organic carbon, and turbidity," according to Heitz' memo.

Bunch said when there is increased algae in the creeks, the algae washes into the aquifer and then starts to decay. It may be that algae is causing the lower dissolved oxygen level in the aquifer, according to the study. The solution Bunch sees is "limiting fertilizer usage and wastewater irrigation. Those are both big sources of nutrients, probably leaking sewer lines as well."

Although the study says that these trends "do not indicate imminent impairment of uses or impacts to aquatic life or warrant drastic modification in the city's current initiatives," David Frederick, Austin field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), said he too is concerned and frustrated by the situation.

Frederick said FWS has suspected that Barton Springs' water quality has been deteriorating "for a long time. This is the first long-term study and interpretation of data that's been done on the springs. So right now we're under advisement and we're also dealing with EPA ( Environmental Protection Agency) on its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination Permit. So I think we've touched all the bases as far as working with people. But we've been saying for a long time that there are more problems with sediment and dissolved oxygen. This verifies what we've been saying. We're not starting something. We're already in the middle of it up to our necks because this isn't a new problem.

"I don't know if we're going to have to take a stricter stance–and we have expressed to many of the public out there that is one way to curb this problem–especially on future development. The question I have is what do we do with development that's already existing?"

One publicly employed environmentalist who has been involved in water quality issues for many years explained that the Clean Water Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1970, was originally applied only to municipal wastewater discharge. The law was expanded to include stormwater discharge from construction sites and developed property. However, the EPA, which is charged with enforcing the federal law, has delegated that authority to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC). The source said TNRCC and EPA "have been very timid" about enforcing the law.

Frederick said, "We have been reporting to EPA on the failures" of enforcement. And there are "many, many failures," he said. "So, we're having long and hard discussions with EPA on that issue.

"There's a national standard (for stormwater runoff) and it doesn't work, for endangered species anyway." In addition, Frederick said, "Who is enforcing silt fences and everything else that's supposed to be done?" He said his office notifies EPA in Dallas, but the lack of an Austin office means "there's nobody in this town on a regular basis from EPA to make sure that things are in concurrence. So, we have a problem."

That problem is supposed to be resolved in Washington, DC, Frederick said. "This is not a minor local issue," the source said.

Questions about Hays County's water line

Frederick said he is confident that the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between FWS and the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) concerning the water line LCRA plans to build to Hays County is stringent enough to prevent further degradation in the areas of dissolved oxygen and turbidity.

"I think so, because of the buffering and different other things that will be accounted for" during the construction process, he said. "It's the best science we have on the table. And the restrictions will be outlined in our biological opinion." Frederick said he is expecting that opinion that will come out within the next 45 days.

Good-bye old annex…Celebrate the passing of an era as the building that housed the City Council Chambers and much of the city staff is turned into dust to make way for the new City Hall and Plaza. The Municipal Annex Demolition Ceremony begins at 11:45 a.m. today at 305 W. 2nd St., in the south parking lot at Cesar Chavez. A longtime city employee who worked in the building from the beginning till the end will be there with a sledgehammer to take a whack at the walls before Mayor Kirk Watson signals the wrecking ball to do the job with a bit more muscle. The event includes a hot-dog lunch and music. If you want to see the goings-on, however, you'll need a press pass as the event is not open to the general public. For more info contact Jan Hilton at 499-3101 or Patty Gonzales at 499-2395… Airport bus planning…A task force to assist Capital Metro in improving bus service to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport is set to begin work Thursday at 3 p.m. at Capital Metro's offices, 2910 E. 5th Street. Capital Metro currently has two airport routes, one of which stops at the University of Texas and downtown. The second route, designed to carry employees to and from airport jobs, runs from the North through East Austin, according to Cap Metro spokesman Rob Smith… Light rail scrutiny…The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce's Blue Ribbon Task Force on Light Rail will meet 9 a.m. to noon Friday, June 9, in the 1st Floor conference center at 98 San Jacinto Blvd. (behind Sweetish Hill Bakery). The task force will hear from Tim Lomax and Brian Bochner, research engineers from the System Planning, Policy and Environmental Research Group at the Texas Transportation Institute of Texas A&M University. The public is invited. The mission of the task force is to develop a position paper for the chamber's board, and the board will then decide what position the organization takes with respect to the light-rail referendum in November. For more info, call Saralee Tiede at 322-5649… Springdale Park fund-raiser…On Saturday, June 10, 6-8 p.m., the METSA Neighborhood Association and Austin Parks Foundation (APF) will host An Evening in the Park to raise funds and community awareness around Springdale Park, complete with speakers, choir and refreshments. As part of its Partners for Parks Program, the APF has dedicated $50,000 for Phase II improvements in the 14.5 acre park, courtesy of a challenge grant from the Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Fund. For more info, call Jonathan Neumann of APF at 477-1566… More on Moore…As reported in Whispers yesterday, John Moore is departing the Lower Colorado River Authority to work for Grande Communications. Moore tells In Fact Daily that as vice president and general manager he will head up the Austin area operations to include sales, marketing and a call center, while installation of the fiber-optic network will be handled by the corporate group headquartered in San Marcos. Moore's counterpart will head up a similar operation in San Antonio. "I wasn't looking to leave the LCRA. I enjoy what I do here," Moore says. "Through friends this opportunity showed up on my door. It was a real hard decision to leave here but I like the idea of doing private-sector work to cap off my career." For more on the venture visit the web site … All present and accounted for…All nine members of the Planning Commission were present for last night's extremely short meeting. Business was conducted in just under an hour in the commission's new home at One Texas Center. Even the microphones were working… Museum consultant in town… Shari Dalrymple of the Harrison Price Co. of Palo Alto, California, is in Austin this week performing a feasibility study for a science and technology museum. Dalrymple was hired by the board of the Science and Technology Museum of Austin to analyze the possibility of putting the museum in the old Seaholm Power Plant or other locations around the Capitol City.

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