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Aquifer district finishes Habitat Conservation Plan

Tuesday, December 2, 2014 by Mark Richardson

After a decade of research, public input and development, the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District is sending its completed draft Habitat Conservation Plan, approved last month, to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for approval. The aquifer district board’s recent approval of the plan brings a complex process begun in 2004 to an end.

The plan, according to the board’s general manager, John Dupnik, will allow the aquifer district to fulfill its mission of managing groundwater resources under its jurisdiction while protecting the endangered species that live within the district.

“The objective of the management plan is twofold,” he said. “First, we will manage the principal interests of our stakeholders to preserve water supplies, particularly in the vulnerable portions of the aquifer in the western parts of the district that are affected by declining water levels. Second, it will have the mutual benefit of preserving the spring flow at Barton Springs for the salamanders.”

Barton Springs is the sole habitat of two federally protected endangered species: the Barton Springs salamander and the Austin Blind salamander.

If the Fish and Wildlife Service approves the plan – a process that could take several months – it means that the agency endorses the district’s plan for how it will manage the aquifer’s resources. Based on that, it will issue a 20-year Incidental Take Permit, which protects the district and its permitees from any charges of harassment or harm (known as a “take”) to the salamanders that may come from pumping.

Dupnik said the board designed the plan to maintain a minimum spring flow of 6.5 cubic feet per second to Barton Springs from the aquifer, which is the minimum amount calculated to maintain the salamanders’ habitat. He said that flow level is the minimum the district must maintain during periods of extreme drought in order to protect the salamanders. Normal spring flow is about 38 CFS.

“The plan is more oriented toward the salamanders, but in preserving spring flow, we are also preserving water supplies for our groundwater users,” Dupnik said. “In doing that, we will have protection from any liability associated with any incidental take of the salamanders that could be directly attributed to our pumping, or how the pumping of permitees affects the aquifer.”

Dupnik said that to avoid and minimize take, the plan spells out specific measures and actions, including establishing a permitting cap on firm-yield pumping, employing a drought management program to define drought severity and requisite pumping curtailments, and encouraging the substitution of alternative water supplies (surface water, other aquifers) for aquifer water in times of drought.

The plan was developed, refined and reviewed through a public process over 10 years and benefited from input and recommendations from stakeholders, subject experts and advisory committee members.

“We went through an exhaustive stakeholder process, and there are so many players here, they see the value of it,” Dupnik said. “The permitees have been living with our curtailment program and our drought management plan for some time now, and they see the value of reflecting that in the conservation plan.”

The Texas Legislature created the district in 1987 to manage the groundwater resources of the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer, the giant underground lake that runs from just south of Austin to the Mexico border near Laredo. Some 60,000 people in northern Hays County and southern Travis County rely on the Barton Springs aquifer as their primary source of water.

More information on the plan, the history of its development process and supporting materials is available online.



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