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Salamander provides more grounds for argument over new treatment plant

Monday, June 21, 2010 by Mark Richardson

A hearing and public comment session on a proposed agreement to protect the Jollyville Plateau Salamander provided a glimpse into how both city officials and the environmental community plan to use the plight of the tiny amphibian to further their goals. The city wants to complete Water Treatment Plant 4, and environmental groups are trying to shut that project down.


The session, held during a meeting of the Environmental Board last week, provided information on plans for the city’s Watershed Protection and Development Review Department and the US Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances, or CCAA, that will extend a number of interim protections to the Jollyville Plateau Salamander. Those protections would lay the groundwork for what would be put in place if it is named to the federal Endangered Species List. It would join two other local amphibians, the Barton Springs Salamander and the Austin Blind Salamander, on the List.


The salamander has been a candidate for an endangered listing since 2007, when groups such as the Save Our Springs Alliance and the Sierra Club nominated it for a full review for inclusion on the list, citing its limited numbers in its habitat and encroaching urban development. The Jollyville Plateau Salamander’s range includes only the Bull Creek Watershed in northwest Austin and southern Williamson County.


At the time that determination was made, the city was planning to build the controversial Water Treatment Plant 4 on a site that was squarely inside the Bull Creek headwaters. It has since moved the WTP4 site to a less sensitive site on RM 620 and Bullick Hollow Road, but plans to tunnel under the previous site to construct a transmission main to distribute water to the northwest part of the city.


Though last week’s hearing was to be focused solely on plans to develop a CCAA for the salamander, the water treatment plant controversy was continually mentioned, as both sides were tying the progress of the facility to the fate of the salamander.


City officials believe that a CCAA would serve to protect the city from any delays or other complications in completing the WTP4 or other projects that might be planned for the watershed. However, local environmental groups also see getting the salamander on the endangered list as a way as to block the city from moving forward on the treatment plant and its transmission mains, which they strongly oppose. 


“It formally commits the city to a prelisting implementation of a conservation strategy and protections for a variety of city activities,” said Chuck Lesniak, a policy manager with Watershed Protection. “In addition to Water Treatment Plant 4 and other large . . . projects that the city might have in this area, other activities that might be covered include flood control activities, stream maintenance … and monitoring and research.”


After a brief review of the salamander and threats to its habitat, Lesniak laid out the goals of the CCAA and a timeline for negotiating it with federal officials. He said the agreement would make it easier for the city to transition to an endangered listing for the salamander, if and when that might happen.


“It (the CCAA) is an enhancement, it’s a recovery permit,” Lesniak said, “as opposed to just a ‘maintain the status quo, don’t cause jeopardy’ permit, which is what you get from a habitat conservation plan. So the bar is higher; this is a greater level of protection. “


Lesniak said the CCAA is considered “pre-listing” agreement which will only apply to City of Austin property and activities, and not to any private property. However, while city officials promise a “full and open” public review of the agreement, they have taken steps to make sure that outside groups do not have a direct influence on how the agreement is written. 


Bill Bunch, director of the SOS Alliance, said he hopes the agreement will prevent the city from some of the planned construction activities in and around the salamander’s habitat, including boring deep holes that his group believes could disrupt the flow of natural springs in the area and deprive the salamander of its habitat.


“They are still planning a 10-to-13-foot tunnel through the original plant site across and under the preserve system,” he said, adding that his information indicates that test holes drilled previously at the Bull Creek site have diverted and stopped spring flows. City officials say there is no evidence of that.


“They’re proposing a massive mining operation in the area, with drilling, blasting, vibrations, and long-term draining problems, essentially creating a whole new cave system. And all the time hoping that it doesn’t affect the habitat, when we have no way of knowing whether it will or not,” Bunch said.


SOS and other groups oppose the WTP4 project, arguing that the city can extend its current water supply for several more years through conservation. They also say that despite the city’s move to a different location, the plant and its transmission mains remain a threat to the environment.


At one point in the public comment, Roy Waley with the local chapter of the Sierra Club asked the Environmental Board to approve an observer from his group and SOS Alliance to sit in on planned negotiations this week between the city and federal officials to work out the agreement. Board Member Jon Beall, after asking both sides a number of questions, offered up a motion making that request. However, the motion died for lack of a second.


Officials from Watershed Development and Fish and Wildlife Service begin a series of meetings this week that are scheduled to end Friday with a draft of a CCAA agreement. Those meetings, according top Lesniak, are closed to the public, but the draft will be put up for public comment at a future date.

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