Some considered the six month extension by the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) in listing the Salado salamander and Georgetown salamander as endangered as a victory of sorts.
But Rep. John Carter (R-31) sees it differently. Not as a victory but as an opportunity. And the battle, Rep. Carter said Sept. 5 at a gathering of stakeholders affected the Salado salamander proposed listing, is not just about the salamander but about litigation and science.
“This won’t end with the salamander,” Rep. Carter said, adding that when “they finish with the salamander, there are another 251 species that have been published in the Federal Register to go on the endangered species list. The next one in this area is a freshwater mussel.
Rep. Carter said that fringe environmentalists have taken a litigious approach to forcing the overwhelmed FWS to add more species to the Endangered Species list. “They’re not done yet,” he said, adding that the environmental group Center for Biodiversity in a settlement with the FWS has pushed the FWS to consider listing hundreds of species as endangered.
“Fish and Wildlife is not making these decisions based on the science they are doing themselves,” Rep. Carter said. Instead, the service is relying on the science that is presented to them. In many cases, that science is one-sided and, according to Rep. Carter, flawed.
The local stakeholder group began an effort last year to gather data about the Edwards aquifer, the Salado creek watershed, the effects of the prolonged drought and the Salado salamander itself.
County Commissioner Tim Brown said that the group, funded by Bell County, Clearwater Underground Water Conservation District (CUWCD), the Village of Salado, Salado Water Supply Corporation, Jarrell-Schertner Water Supply Corporation and private property owners, entered into a contract with the top experts to study these aspects and help propose a common sense approach to proteecting the habitat of the species.
“It’s not just about the salamander,” Brown said. “It’s about protecting an important asset,” adding that Saladoans get their water from the aquifer.
“If we take care of the aquifer, we take care of the salamander,” he said.
“We need the aquifer to be be full, we need it to be clean,” said Mike Brashawn, a water rights attorney from Austin who has worked for CUWCD.
The CUWCD was tasked by the state to determine what are the desired future conditions for the Edwards (northern segment) and Trinity Aquifer. For the Edwards, the minimal flow acceptable is 1.6 cubic feet per second.
Even during this extreme, historic drought, that flow has remained above 2.2 cubic feet per second, according to Dirk Aaron, executive director of the CUWCD.
“We are doing our part to protect both the water quantity and the water quality of the Edwards Aquifer,” Aaron said.
However, the drought has caused the salamanders to all but disappear. To some scientists, driven by what Rep. Carter said was a motivation to shut down everything, the proposed salamanders “have to be under more stress because they are no longer seen.”
But for other scientists, there is another “common sense answer” to the fact that no one has seen a Salado salamander in several years.
“They’ve gone down into the aquifer itself,” he said.
Aaron and Brown agree. They have said that during the historic droughts, the salamander has “disappeared” only to reappear in springs when water conditions improve.
Aaron said that the CUWCD will again make public comment, using the scinetific data gather to-date, in refuting many of the claims in the proposed listing of the Salado salamander. Specifically, CUWCD will refute the claim in the listing proposal that there are no regulatory measures in place to protect the critical habitat of the Salado salamander.
“We have been protecting that habitat,” he said, “because it is important to all of us to have enough good, quality water.”