Tuesday, May 7, 2013 by Charlotte Moore

City staff working with feds to renew Barton Springs conservation plan

Austinites are familiar with the Barton Springs salamander. Now, a simple click and comment from advocates could pave the way for the city to save a whole other kind of local amphibian – the Austin Blind Salamander.

 

According to the city’s web site, the blind salamander is known to live only in the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer. It can grow to up to three inches long, and it’s pearly-white to lavender in color with a square-shaped snout. It’s called a blind salamander because while it has eye spots, it has adapted to living in the dark, underground waters of the aquifer and can’t form images. Not much more than that is known about the salamander because researchers can’t easily get to it. Still, city leaders say the sightless creature is worth protecting.

 

That’s only part of the city’s request to renew and amend the Barton Springs Pool Habitat Conservation Plan. If the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approves the request, the city’s permit would be extended by 20 years to 2033 and give the go-ahead for restoration projects to begin, including work at Barton Springs pool, Old Mill Spring, Eliza Spring, and Upper Barton Spring. At last Wednesday’s Environmental Board meeting, all five members in attendance passed the motion to support the amendment.

 

City officials say the process of drafting a comprehensive permit request and getting it approved through U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can be a grueling one.

 

“In order for (the permit) to get published into the federal register, It gets reviewed locally, regionally, then it’s sent to Washington where they review it there,” explained environmental scientist and biologist, Laurie Dries of the city’s Watershed Protection Department. “It’s already gone up to Washington once; they will review it there, set it up in the queue – the whole process takes about 18 months.”

 

The existing permit expires in October.

 

Dries says the Fish and Wildlife Service could approve the amendment as soon as August and by October at the latest.

 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to hear from Austinites about the proposed renewal and amendments. “We appreciate our partnership with the City of Austin and the City of Austin’s stewardship of Barton Springs Pool and the salamanders that are there,” said field supervisor Adam Zerrenner. “We would encourage the public to look at their amendments and provide comments.” 

 

Dries says public comment can be very instrumental in helping the city decide what kind of alterations it wants to make on the natural environment.

 

“With these permits we try to be as thorough as possible,” she said. “There are some very specific things scientists can comment on and we absolutely love and want that. None of us here are going to think of everything. Someone can comment, for instance, on whether they think some particular measure we propose is not appropriate.”

The public has until June 21 to comment. To view details of the amendment, and to make a comment, go to this page on the Federal Register website.

 

Money to pay for the Barton Springs Habitat Conservation Plan comes out of various city funds including capital improvements, projects and operating budgets for the Parks and Recreation Department.

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