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Aquifer District ramping up for Habitat Conservation Plan

Friday, February 21, 2014 by Andy Sevilla

A decade in the making, the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District is making progress on a Habitat Conservation Plan aimed at mitigating groundwater-pumping effects on endangered salamanders.

The ultimate goal of the plan is to acquire a federal Incidental Take Permit – a risk reduction measure protecting the district and its well permittees from potential liability for any alleged adverse effect on endangered species, which are protected by federal law.

The federal Endangered Species Act defines how plants and animals may be categorized as threatened or endangered for eventual listing as such species. The act also makes it illegal to cause any adversity to endangered species’ themselves or their behaviors, and that’s defined as a “take” – to annoy, harass, harm, pursue, capture, trap, shoot, wound, collect, kill, etc. any plant or animal on the endangered list.

District General Manager John Dupnik said the plan would outline policies and practices the district will follow to manage groundwater pumping and its effects on spring flow, and ultimately its effects on the Barton Springs Salamander and the Austin Blind Salamander.

“The (Incidental) Take Permit would create protection from liability that would be associated with any effect on the salamander,” Dupnik said. “We feel like we have a good management in place now to allow folks to pump water – have access to groundwater – and balance that with the needs of the salamander.”

The covered activities under the proposed HCP are the district’s authority on water withdrawals from the Barton Springs Aquifer, and groundwater and drought management. The covered species are both endemic to Barton Springs, the Barton Springs Salamander, which was listed as an endangered species in 1997; and the Austin Blind Salamander, which joined the list last year.

Any citizen who feels an endangered species has been negatively affected can file a claim about violations against the district under the Endangered Species Act, Dupnik said. An Incidental Take Permit would protect the district from liability, if the body has acted under its own conservation plan, through its policies and practices, to minimize and mitigate, to the greatest extent possible, any adverse effect to the salamanders, he said.

Extrapolating further, Dupnik said following a strict conservation plan should be easy for the district, as the board has been implementing policies to regulate groundwater pumping, and balancing that with spring flow management. He said the HCP would further affirm or add impetus to habitat management as an objective of the district.

According to a retired General Manager Kirk Holland, who now serves as a consultant on the project, the district began developing a conservation plan in 2004, when the district completed a Sustainable Yield Study and scientific underpinning for an enhanced drought management plan.

Dupnik said that since then, the district has implemented policies balancing groundwater access with spring flow management. In the late 1990s the district recognized that water chemistry changes during low spring flows, which also have ecological significance, according to Holland’s presentation.

Dupnik said that an initial preliminary draft habitat conservation plan and preliminary Environmental Impact Statement was published by the district in 2007, and the Fish and Wildlife Service had begun its review of the plan. He said the district was well on its way to formulating a habitat conservation plan a few years ago, but UT professor Kent Butler, who was heading the project, suddenly died in a hiking accident, which derailed the plan’s progression.

“It took us a while to get back on track,” Dupnik said.

But now, the district held its first workshop presenting the plan and discussed the background and significance of the plan. The board is scheduled to dive into the mechanics of the proposed plan at a next week’s meeting.

The district anticipates submitting a board-approved public review draft habitat conservation plan to the Fish and Wildlife Service for an informal review March 1. The board would also submit the plan to its Management Advisory Committee, which also would review the plan.

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