Edwards Aquifer plan will reconcile endangered species protection with stakeholder needs
The Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Program (EARIP) has overcome the final hurdle in resolving a long-standing struggle to balance the protection of endangered species with water use in the Edwards Aquifer, according to the program’s coordinator.
“The Edwards Aquifer Authority Board of Directors recently approved a funding and management agreement to implement a habitat conservation plan for the Edwards Aquifer,” said Robert Gulley, Texas A&M Institute of Renewable Natural Resources program coordinator for the EARIP. “The plan is focused on protecting threatened and endangered species whose only known habitats are the aquifer-fed Comal and San Marcos springs.”
At its Dec. 13, 2011, meeting the Edwards Aquifer Authority board approved the conservation plan, which was developed by the recovery implementation program stakeholder group over the past 4.5 years.
“The plan will protect the Edwards Aquifer, a major groundwater system in Texas serving approximately 2 million people, and contribute to a stable water supply for the region while protecting the endangered species,” Gulley said.
The EARIP is a collaborative, consensus-based stakeholder process coordinated through the Institute of Renewable Natural Resources.
According to the aquifer authority, the funding and management agreement details how its organization, with participation from the cities of New Braunfels, San Marcos and San Antonio through the San Antonio Water System (SAWS), along with Texas State University in San Marcos, will pay for implementing the conservation plan.
“The plan marks the first time that area stakeholders have reached a consensus resolution to the regional conflicts between species protection and Edwards Aquifer pumping that have existed for decades,” Gulley said.
Stakeholders include water utilities, cities, groundwater conservation districts, agricultural users, industrial users, environmental organizations, individuals, river authorities, downstream and coastal communities, and state and federal agencies.
Gulley added that conflict related to aquifer water use has been ongoing for about 50 years and the plan’s approval by the aquifer authority “marks the final chapter in that dispute.”
“As a result, the region will now have certainty about its use of the aquifer, control of the aquifer and the aquifer will be managed at a regional level rather than by the federal government,” he said.
The Texas Legislature tasked the EARIP with the development of a plan to help recovery of the federally protected species by September 2012. According to Gulley, under state law the Edwards Aquifer Authority must implement a program by Dec. 31, 2012 to ensure that continuous minimum output of the Comal and San Marcos springs are maintained to protect listed species as required by federal law. The habitat conservation plan and supporting documents will be submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for approval.
Gulley said he anticipates the Fish and Wildlife Service will make a decision whether to approve the plan by fall 2012.
“The approval of the habitat protection plan will help protect the region from litigation under the Endangered Species Act and will bring unprecedented certainty to Edwards groundwater rights for as long as the plan is in effect,” he said.
Gulley said implementing the plan will cost an estimated $18.6 million annually and, as a result, there will be an increase in aquifer management fees.
“The two major projects in the plan are paying farmers who sign up for a voluntary irrigation suspension program and placing additional water in the SAWS Aquifer Storage and Recovery facility in the Carrizo Aquifer,” Gulley said. “Many other measures, including habitat improvements in the Comal and San Marcos springs, municipal conservation programs and a Stage 5 pumping cutback as a last resort, are in the plan.”
He added that further study over the next seven years will determine whether these measures are sufficient to protect the listed species, and, if not, what additional methods would be most effective.
For more information visit the EARIP website at earip.org.