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SOS works with West Texas group on listing

Tuesday, July 12, 2005 by

Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance brings environmental groups together

In a move designed to expand its influence across the Edwards Aquifer region, Austin’s Save Our Springs Alliance has teamed up with the West Texas Springs Alliance (WTSA) of Del Rio to petition the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to add the rare San Felipe Gambusia to the federal list of endangered species.

A minnow size fish, the San Felipe Gambusia is only found in San Felipe Creek in Del Rio and depends on spring flows from San Felipe Springs for its survival. San Felipe Springs also provides drinking water for the City of Del Rio and nearby Laughlin Air Force Base.

Colin Clark with Austin’s SOS said the effort is designed to assist a fellow groundwater alliance with managing a threat to the local environment, but it’s also part of a larger effort.

“For the past three years we have been working to broaden our conservation efforts across the Edwards Aquifer,” Clark said. “For the past six to nine months, we have been working with the group in Del Rio on groundwater issues facing that region.”

Clark said the Del Rio group is at a disadvantage because of a lack of regulation in the area. “Because they are not governed by a groundwater district, they are subject to the ‘rule of capture,’ which allows a landowner to pump as much water as they are able,” he said. “So the threats are real.”

West Texas Springs Alliance is one about a dozen citizen-based conservation groups that make up the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance ( http://www.aquiferalliance.org). The GEAA, started in 2002, is designed to work collectively to resolve issues affecting the aquifer.

In Del Rio, the petition filed with USFWS cites increasing risk of "water mining" in the aquifer that feeds San Felipe Springs as a major threat to the survival of the gambusia. Pumping and exporting water out of the Edwards-Trinity Aquifer would reduce critical spring flows at San Felipe Springs, jeopardizing the San Felipe Gambusia's existence and reducing flows into the Rio Grande River.

"We are seeking to protect not only a unique local animal but also our fragile drinking water supply, said WTSA president Jay Johnson. “The people of Del Rio and the San Felipe Gambusia all need clean and strong spring flows. If the San Felipe Gambusia goes extinct, how far behind is Del Rio?"

The Texas Legislature considered a bill last session that would have established a groundwater district for Val Verde County. West Texas Springs Alliance, working along with SOS Alliance under the umbrella of the GEAA, urged the Legislature to include protections guaranteeing the flow of San Felipe Springs. But the bill did not pass. Without state protection, the groups are seeking help from the federal government.

"The first step in having this unique species, and its critical habitat, protected is filing a petition to list the species with the federal government,” said SOS attorney John Fritschie. “The science is abundantly clear that this species deserves and needs protection under the Endangered Species Act."

Arguments over Oak Hill interchange continue

Members of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Transportation Policy Board encouraged the Texas Department of Transportation to do more to open up the public input process on the expansion of US 290/SH 71 through Oak Hill last night.

The expansion of the three-mile stretch of US 290/SH 71 through Oak Hill has been in the works, in one form or another, since 1986. The expansion is only one of a number of projects that have failed to materialize in recent years, usually due to a shortfall in funding for the region’s smaller road projects.

Engineer Don Nyland presented an update on the project, pointing to a number of open house meetings the agency has hosted in the community. Those meetings include an open house in Dripping Springs on Wednesday, a meeting in Bee Cave on Thursday and another open house at the ACC Pinnacle campus next Monday.

A number of community members addressed the board last night, speaking to the need to preserve businesses and a desire to consider options such as roundabouts or additional alternative routes. Both Council Member Betty Dunkerley and Commissioner Gerald Daugherty spoke to community frustration on the issue of incorporating public input.

“One of the issues I saw out in the community was that the area put a great importance on the issues of connectivity between neighborhoods and the areas behind those neighborhoods,” Dunkerley told TxDOT.

Daugherty said he hated to delay the process but he wanted to make sure community concerns were heard. The community needed to understand that TxDOT can step back and look at the project again, but that it would cost the project in terms of time.

“I really don’t know what to do,” Daugherty admitted. “I’m afraid that if we somehow put TxDOT in a position of, ‘What do we need to do?’ then we may need to scrap what we’ve got.”

The bottom line, said Council Member Brewster McCracken, is that community needs will have to be balanced with transit needs. Community leaders want to use the neighborhood planning process to both increase density in the area and preserve commerce around the “ Y.” They also have concerns about connectivity across the freeway so that neighbors can move from one side of the toll way to the other side with a minimum of obstacles.

“The truth is, this can make or break what Oak Hill will look like in the next 50 to 100 years,” community member Ross Thayer told the board. “We would simply ask that you help us help ourselves, to work with these smart engaged people so you can help us make an Oak Hill that we can be proud off for the next hundred years.”

While TxDOT officials say they are not opposed to those goals, the agency is trying to stick to a plan that serves not only Oak Hill but also the greater regional goals for transportation in the area, said District Engineer Bob Daigh. After the meeting, Daigh said the project already had gone through a number of iterations and would have additional changes before it was done. Before those changes are made, however, they will require both broad community support and some type of feasibility analysis. For instance, one suggested bypass around the ACC Pinnacle campus has presented substantial environmental issues, Daigh said.

Some of the community concerns will be addressed in the geometric design of the project; other concerns will be addressed in the separate “beautification” design process. Daigh said many who are new to Oak Hill might not understand that the dialogue process for this project has been almost 20 years in the making.

“We are very sincere in listening to the comments we receive,” Daigh said. “We didn’t want to bring a lot of pictures and drawings tonight and say any one drawing is how it’s going to look. We have no one drawing of how it’s going to be.”

Rep. Terry Keel’s (R-Austin) Chief of Staff Shyra Darr asked Daigh to outline a schedule for any design changes TxDOT might accept on the project as it considers new input. She asked if he could outline parameters for any design changes on the project. .

Daigh balked a bit at the suggestion, saying he was happy to provide individual board members with information but that he considered it a dangerous step to begin a dialogue about how TxDOT is going to act on certain projects. A status update was one thing; dictating how the agency would respond to community concerns was another.

“I appreciate the concerns, and I want to work as openly as I can,” Daigh said. “We will do our best to address these concerns, but I think it is a very dangerous step to take if we get this board into the design-implementation business, and I would caution you to move very carefully before we move in that direction.”

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

TCEQ holds aquifer hearings . . . The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) will hold the first of two meetings to take public comment on how the commission should protect the Edwards Aquifer at 9:30am today. The meeting will be held at the TCEQ Park 35 Complex, 12100 Park 35 Circle, Building E, Room 201 S in Austin. A second meeting will be held in the San Antonio Municipal Council Chambers, 103 Main Plaza in San Antonio at 6:30pm Wednesday. The commission will listen to oral comments and also receive written comments. For more information, contact Tracy Callen, tcallen@TCEQ.state.tx.us or call 239-4127 . . . More meetings . . . The Travis County Citizens Bond Advisory Committee meets at 6pm today at the Thompson Conference Center at UT. The main items on the agenda are reviews of the jail facility project; drainage, bridge and mobility project; and the parks and open space project . . . The Planning Commission meets at 6pm in Room 325 of One Texas Center . . . The Community Development Commission will meet at 6:30pm at the Street-Jones Building, 1000 East 11th Street, Room 400A . . . Mayor Will Wynn will speak to South Austin Democrats at their monthly meeting tonight, discussing the Envision Central Texas bond package, among other things. SAD’s schedule begins with dinner at 5:30pm and meeting at 6pm at Little Mexico, 2304 S. 1st Street . . . The United States Conference of Mayors has appointed the Mayor to serve as chair of that group’s National Energy Committee. Wynn recently sent a letter to members of the community to notify them of his appointment, noting that “in addition to recognizing Austin’s leadership role in the development of renewable energy and its commitment to conservation, this appointment gives us all a great opportunity to advance the agenda of sustainability at the level where it counts the most, among the great cities that are at the heart of our great nation” . . . New librarian for Carver Branch . . . Cynthia Charles has been chosen Managing Librarian for the Carver Branch of the Austin Public Library. Charles has a Masters in Library and Information Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. In May, she received the Faculty of the Year Award at Texas College in Tyler, where she was Director of Library Services. “This branch has a strong history and we want to always be on the cutting edge of library services not only in East Austin but throughout the entire city,” says Charles. The library invites the public to a reception in her honor on August 2 from 5 to 7pm at the Carver Branch, 1161 Angelina . . . Council offices open again . . . After a week of additions, including insulation between the various offices, all Council offices appeared to be open for business Monday. The Council chamber is still curtained off with black plastic and exudes the odor of dust. But the Council is not scheduled to meet again until July 28. . . Williamson County may get air park . . . The Texas Department of Transportation is looking at 1,500 acres situated near Cedar Park, Liberty Hill and Georgetown as the possible site for a regional air park. Attempts to locate the facility in Pflugerville, Manor, Hutto and Taylor all failed due to local opposition. After closings of Robert Mueller and Austin Executive Airpark, the Legislature passed a law in 2001 mandating that TxDOT establish and maintain a state airport in the Central Texas area. A TxDOT Aviation Division spokeswoman said plans for the facility are still preliminary, but that consultants are doing a final site study, which should be out in a few weeks.

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