Measure calls for flows to protect threatened species

The Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Program is the culmination of a long struggle between various interests to balance the water supply needs of a region that stretches from Uvalde and Medina counties, through San Antonio and the spring communities of New Braunfels and San Marcos and all of the way to the coast along the Guadalupe River.

This was complicated by the filing, and ultimate success, in federal court of a lawsuit by the Sierra Club alleging the United States Department of Interior was not adequately protecting the endangered species in the springs. The success of the lawsuit led to the passage of SB1477 in the Legislature in 1993, creating the Edwards Aquifer Authority and then a series of amendments to that legislation aimed at providing, by Dec. 31, 2012, conditions to ensure that continuous minimum spring flows of the Comal and San Marcos springs are maintained to protect listed species as required by federal law.

The EARIP is a collaborative, consensus-based, regional stakeholder process tasked by the Texas Legislature with the development of a plan to help recovery of the federally-protected species by Sept. 2012. EARIP 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.

The species being addressed are unique to the two sets of springs. The listed endangered species are the Fountain Darter, Comal Springs Riffle Beetle, San Marcos Gambusia, Comal Springs Dryopid Beetle, Peck's Cave Amphipod, Texas Wild Rice and the Texas Blind Salamander. Several others may be listed in the future.

The group decided to concentrate on the endangered species in the springs, rather than include other species in the region so that we would be addressing the effects of the original lawsuit and have a manageable and economically viable program.

Conflicts between species protection at the Comal and San Marcos springs and Edwards Aquifer pumping have plagued the region for decades. The EARIP protection plan marks the first time that area stakeholders have reached a consensus resolution to the conflicts. The plan and supporting documents will be presented as recommendations to the Edwards Aquifer Authority Board of Directors in December. The EAA must review the EARIP recommendations and may use the EARIP documents as the basis for its required protection programs. The plan will then be submitted to the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service for approval.

The documents written by EARIP stakeholders for a management and funding plan to protect the Edwards Aquifer were approved by the vote of the steering committee of the EARIP at a Nov. 7 meeting in Seguin.

The long-awaited plan contributes to a balance of a stable water supply for the region while protecting the endangered species, and was approved on a vote of 24-1, with one abstention. A point of conflict in the process was not only what needs to be done, but how will it be paid for? After much debate, downstream entities were able to come to an agreement with the pumping communities on a level of contribution to the approximately $18.5 million dollar annual cost that was considered a significant amount toward a regional solution, but recognized the primary benefit to the pumping communities.

Contributions of $740,000 annually are being pledged by downstream cities and industries to assist with the EARIP projects, and the rest will be raised with aquifer pumping fees levied by EAA.

Significant direction to the program was given to the program by state Sen. Glenn Hegar's work on the passage of the article in Senate Bill 3 in the 2007 legislative session that created the EARIP and his continued leadership as the program developed. He and state Rep. Geanie Morrison made sure funding was available in the 2009 session to provide for scientific analysis necessary for the process.

The city of Victoria has an interest in the EARIP process because of the interconnectivity of the ecosystem that stretches from the counties west of San Antonio all the way to the bays and estuaries of the Gulf Coast. The city has been, and will continue to be, deeply involved in efforts to find a regional solution to the management of the ecosystem that makes sense from both economic and environmental perspectives. We are confident that the outcome of the EARIP provides a program for the protection of the species and their habitat and for the managed use of the Edwards Aquifer as a sustainable water supply for the entire Edwards region.

This is indeed a historic moment in the history of Texas water politics and policy because of its complexity and the wide range of interests of the stakeholders. Through this effort, Texans are working together to craft a local solution and maintain local control of that solution.

Jerry James is the director of environmental services for the city of Victoria.