Aquifer plan seeks balance

Jan 13, 2012
by WLJ

The Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Program has overcome the final hurdle in resolving a longstanding 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 Edwards Aquifer Restoration Implementation Plan. “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 meeting, the Edwards Aquifer Authority board had approved the conservation plan, which was developed by the recovery implementation program stakeholder group over the past four and a half 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 Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Program is a collaborative, consensus-based stakeholder process coordinated through the Institute of Renewable Natural Resources, which is headquartered in College Station.

The institute conducts interdisciplinary research and technology transfer, policy and economic analysis, and engagement with land managers and policy makers to improve natural resource management. Institute water programs encourage secure and sustainable water resources for humans and wildlife through watershed restoration, land conservation and policy innovation.

According to the aquifer authority, the funding and management agreement details how their 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.

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.

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 (USFWS) for approval.

Gulley said he anticipates USFWS 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 five 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.— WLJ