War of the Worlds

War of the Worlds

Living in Boston, I saw five types of animals: pigeons, squirrels, rats, mice and drunks. So the most delightful surprise in moving to Austin has been the sheer diversity of life in this city. Standing in my kitchen, I have spotted apple green lizards with pink puffed air sacs, horned lizards pebbled gray and brown, white snails the size of silver dollars. In the late evening, tree frogs call from the canopy above my house.

But this magic is eclipsed by the menagerie beneath me. Underlying the city of Austin, stretching as far south as San Antonio and as far west as Kinney County, is the underwater cave system of the Edwards Aquifer. The Edwards gives life to some of the largest springs in Texas—Barton, Comal and San Marcos—along with some of the most charismatic, including Krause Springs and Hamilton Pool, the subjects of my next entry.

Barton Springs at sundown, courtesy of Maura Grace Ambrose.

The Edwards Aquifer is also home to some of the strangest and most ancient animals in North America. For millions of years, these animals have lived within the honeycombed limestone of the Edwards, submerged in the rainwaters channeled here from across Central Texas.

The endangered Texas blind salamander, inhabitant of the Edwards Aquifer.

In their world of blackness and quiet, they have shed the vestiges of their sun-stroked ancestors. Having no need for eyes or pigmentation, they have none.

The widemouth blindcat, an eyeless catfish that lives in the Edwards. 

This alien world is connected to ours by a single thread: water. The rain that runs through our gutters percolates through the soil and rock separating our world from theirs. In that water they swim and hunt and breed. But it is only theirs for a little while. Sooner or later, the water reemerges from the aquifer, either from natural springs or from the wells we have dug to extract it.

And that is where our worlds collide. Rain in central Texas is a rare and violent thing. Weeks, months can pass without much to speak of. But when it comes, it is Biblical. The floodwaters that course through this increasingly urban landscape carry with them all of the chemical delights of the human world: the Round Ups, the Miracle Gros, the antifreezes and anti-knock gasoline additives and motor oils. Those chemicals, along with the growing human demand for the water of the Edwards, have conspired to push the blind salamanders and catfish to the brink of extinction.

 The Edwards Aquifer is extremely permeable, recharged in many places by sinkholes like this one.

This being Texas, you know that where this is heading is a fight between federal interlopers and the local powers that be. And that is exactly what happened. A lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club threatened to trigger the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s authority under the Endangered Species Act to limit human use of the aquifer. Now that’s a big deal to the 2 million people who drink from the Edwards Aquifer, not to mention the many farms whose fields and cattle drink this water as well. To stave off federal interference, the Texas Legislature created the Edwards Aquifer Authority, charged with managing and enhancing the aquifer.

Since then, some things have changed. San Antonio, the largest city fed by the Edwards Aquifer, has diversified its water supply, by among other things building an inland desalination plant to treat brackish groundwater and increasing the use of recycled wastewater for outdoor irrigation. San Antonio has also become one of the most water-efficient cities in the United States, cutting water use citywide by a billion gallons a year through such innovative techniques as proving that low-flow toilets are capable of flushing two-pound potatoes (note to San Antonio: you may want to eat less potatoes if you are actually expelling them whole).

The Edwards Aquifer Authority also limited the amount of groundwater agricultural users could pump from the aquifer each year. Ag is the largest water user in the state of Texas, so the Authority’s ability to limits its use meant the precipitously dropping levels of the Edwards Aquifer could actually begin to stabilize and replenish.

All seemed to be on the up and up for the blind salamander, until one day another lawsuit was filed—this time by farmers contesting the right of the Edwards Aquifer Authority to restrict their pumping. In February 2012, the Texas State Supreme Court decided that no groundwater authority has the right to limit how much water property owners pump from beneath their land. Now apparently the Court doesn’t seem to realize that groundwater is the same damn thing as surface water, which the State owns and can restrict as much as it wants. Water is water, after all. For the endangered species of the Edwards Aquifer, while the Court’s decision is not definitely bad news, it is definitely not good news.

I would like to offer a three-part entreaty for the blind salamander. Let me first appeal to the part of human nature that craves a little magic: if there is not some in that ancient and eternal twilight beneath us, I don’t know where any can be found.

When that appeal to beauty and mystery fails, I will appeal to reason: if we cannot sustainably manage an aquifer to support the blind salamander, what makes us think we can manage it for a human population expected to double in the next forty years?

And if that does not sway you, I will submit my final appeal to the unfailing defense of Texan sovereignty: if we don’t figure out a way to keep those salamanders thriving, the feds will. And you don’t want to give them that satisfaction, do you?

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