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Gas bubble disease also found in tadpoles, fish, crawfish

Thursday, June 13, 2002 by

City scientists are still puzzling over the cause of a gas bubble disease plaguing a number of aquatic animals, including the endangered Barton Springs salamander, according to city environmental scientist Dee Ann Chamberlain. The problem was first noted in the salamanders in late January, with more showing up in following months. In Fact Daily reported in April that biologists were puzzled about the reasons for the amphibians dying off. (See In Fact Daily, April 17, 2002 )

In addition to the salamanders, Chamberlain said city scientists have found leopard frog tadpoles, fish, crawfish and beetle larvae with symptoms of gas bubble disease at Barton Springs. She said the WPDR Department has sent salamander specimens to the US Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center in an effort to determine what is causing the malady. Scientists have concluded that water at Barton Springs is “supersaturated with atmospheric gases,” including oxygen, CO2 (carbon dioxide) and nitrogen, she said. However, since no one has historical data on the saturation level of the springs, it is impossible to say either whether it is unusual or has occurred in the past. And while certain species live in naturally supersaturated water and have adapted to those conditions, Chamberlain said, that does not appear to be the case at Barton Springs.

Specimens of a fish known as the Mexican tetra have also been sent to Texas A&M University for pathological study, Chamberlain said. Some fish were discovered exhibiting “a sort of pop-eye condition,” and others were simply found floating dead.

Chamberlain said that once the animals are removed from the springs—even if left in the same water—they frequently get well, since the gas in the water is reabsorbed back into the atmosphere. She said she and other scientists are hoping to do a study of gas bubble disease in captivity and have been talking with the US Fish & Wildlife Service about funding for the project.

Some healthy salamanders have been observed at the springs since mid-May, according to Jody Hamilton, division manager at WPDR. She said the most recently discovered sickly salamander was found in the Sunken Gardens spring on May 14. That particular salamander was removed from the springs and has since recovered, Hamilton said. It has joined approximately 100 of its species in the city’s breeding program. She said so little is known about the salamander’s reproductive behavior that scientists are unsure about how many of the species it would take to have a successful program. Hamilton said the city hopes to eventually have about 500 of the endangered salamanders in the program.

Bill Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, said, “My understanding is there’s too much nitrogen gas in the water, so it’s afflicting animals across taxa. It’s very rare to see that across animals.” He said one cause of excessive nitrogen in the water is use of fertilizer. In addition, he noted that leaking sewer lines and septic tanks could add to the excessive nitrogen. At one time, there were some “concentrated animal feeding operations” in the Sunset Valley area, he said, and some wells in Sunset Valley have shown elevated nitrogen levels. However, that does not explain why there are also elevated levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the springs.

Chamberlain said, “At this point there is no link,” to human action. “But we’ve found no (other) cases where animals were affected by gas bubble disease in their natural habitat.”

Hamilton said there are a number of different theories about the cause of the supersaturation of the springs. Some scientists think the problem may have been a result of last November’s heavy rainfall. She said it’s possible that air “is being pumped into the aquifer in some place,” but she would not speculate on how that might be happening. In the meantime, scientists continue to collect data and ponder the problem.


City Council

To extend development ban

Decision on Planning & Zoning Commission delayed

The Buda City Council (BCC) voted Tuesday night to extend a moratorium on new development for another 60 days in order to give the city more time to work on its comprehensive plan and development regulations. The BCC stopped development in March to allow the city to plan for rapid growth and establish new guidelines based on citizen input, but that suspension had been set to expire on June 19th.

The consulting firm Loomis Austin, Inc. is helping the city set new guidelines. Sean Garretson with Loomis told BCC members that there was still work to be done. “The intent of adopting the moratorium was to allow the consultants and the community to develop the new set of ordinances as it reflects the comprehensive plan,” Loomis said, “so that any new development would occur in conjunction with those ordinances. Looking at the timetable for that—it’s a very ambitious timetable.” The 60-day extension will carry the moratorium through August 19th, and the BCC could then choose to reimpose it for another 30 days.

The BCC also decided to delay a decision on an ordinance creating a Planning and Zoning Commission. BCC members want more time to review the proposed ordinance, which would create a six-member advisory commission to provide input to the BCC on zoning cases. The BCC could decide to set a special called meeting next week to vote on the ordinance.

The recommendation from Loomis Austin is to have the members of a Planning and Zoning Commission also serve on a Capital Improvement Plan/Impact Advisory Committee. Requirements for that type of committee are laid out in Chapter 395 of the Texas Local Government Code at

As part of their discussion of a Planning and Zoning Commission, BCC members heard from Kevin Brumley, a member of the San Marcos Planning and Zoning Commission. He said his personal advice would be to choose their commissioners carefully. “One school of thought is that you take individuals that have extreme views, and you put them in a room and tell them ‘go make good decisions on behalf of the city.’ I think that’s very difficult, and it leads to high blood pressure,” Brumley joked. “I think it’s more important to get individuals who are balanced, reasonable people . . . it’s okay to have diversity of opinion, but also have the ability to compromise.”

The BCC is also considering creating a smaller, temporary Development Review Team to provide feedback to developers of large-scale projects such as shopping centers or major subdivisions. If approved, the team could include representatives from the BCC and Loomis Austin. Members would review projects proposed to cover significant acreage and involve tens of millions of dollars, while the Planning and Zoning Commission would deal with more routine matters. The review team could be allowed to expire after six months, allowing members of the Planning and Zoning commission time to set guidelines and gain experience.

Employee appreciation . . . The board of directors of the LCRA yesterday approved a 3.8 percent raise for General Manager Joe Beal. That brings his salary to $245,000 . . . Party tonight . . .The Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association is hosting a block party at Republic Square from 5-10pm this evening. Downtown denizens and friends are invited to hear the Texana Dames, Shorty Long and a number of other musicians. Refreshments will be provided by Ruta Maya, House Park BBQ and Jim-Jims Water-Ice. Council Member Will Wynn is a special invited guest . . . That biotech thing . . . Cities and states across the country have sent delegations to Bio 2002 in an effort to lure new business to their area, and Austin is no exception. The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and the State of Texas have both sent delegations to the Toronto convention. But the New York Times reports that few cities not already involved in the biotech industry will be able to lure such companies away from Boston, San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle and . . . Airport travel increases . . . Austin Bergstrom International Airport reports that the terminal has experienced an upswing in business since summer vacations started. But obviously that increase is really due to ABIA’s decision to start stocking Krispy Kreme Donuts and Earl Campbell sausage. It won’t make the wait shorter, but travelers may enjoy it more . . . Saturday options . . . The Save Our Springs Alliance is doing what it can to drum up more interest in the organization and in Barton Springs in general. Starting at 1pm Saturday “and every Saturday for the rest of the summer, we will have an open meeting for anyone interested in helping to save Barton Springs,” writes Executive Director Bill Bunch in a recent email. So those interested in updates from SOSA about current development and transportation projects are invited to stop by the back gate (entrance off Robert E. Lee Rd. ) to talk before swimming in the Springs . . . More entertainment for political junkies . . . Council Members Betty Dunkerley and Daryl Slusher and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman will be sworn in at the Convention Center, Ballroom D, at 6pm Saturday. The party begins at 5pm, with music by Johnny Degollado y su Conjunto . . . Improving traffic on US 183 . . . TxDOT is hosting a meeting tonight at LBJ High School to discuss the future of US 183. The agency’s long-term goal is to improve the traffic flow from State Highway 71 all the way to Cedar Park by removing stoplights, making the road more like a highway than a city street. Part of that process involves soliciting public input on details like relocating access ramps. Tonight’s meeting starts at 6:00pm . . . Grants awarded . . . The City of Austin has awarded $100,000 in grant funding to eight different agencies as part of its Grant for Technology Opportunities program. The money is going to non-profit entities to help bridge the “digital divide.” Some provide access to computers for children, while others involve computer-training programs for adults. Recipients include the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Austin Housing Authority and the Texas New Media Project ( Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman announced the recipients on Wednesday. “This is really about the future, and about making the future happen today,” she said.

© 2002 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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