Recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (service) actions pursuant to the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) have the potential to significantly affect public and private development in Central Texas, as well as any other activities that impact water quality or quantity. On August 20, 2013, the service published a final rule listing the Jollyville Plateau salamander as a threatened species and the Austin blind salamander as an endangered species, while also designating approximately 4,451 acres of critical habitat for both species (hereinafter “rule”). See 79 Fed.Reg. 51278, 51328. The rule becomes effective on September 19, 2013. The service also published a six-month extension of the final determination for the Georgetown and Salado salamanders because there is significant scientific disagreement regarding their conservation status. See 79 Fed.Reg. 51129.
The Listing Rule
The Jollyville Plateau salamander and Austin blind salamander are both fully aquatic species that only live in Central Texas. The Jollyville Plateau salamander depends on the Edwards Aquifer and other groundwater sources in Northwestern Travis County and Southwestern Williamson County, while the Austin blind salamander only occurs in the Barton Springs Segment of the Edwards Aquifer in Central Austin. The service determined that the Jollyville Plateau salamander is a threatened species because it is “likely to become in danger of extinction in the foreseeable future throughout all of its range,” while the Austin blind salamander is an endangered species because it “is in danger of extinction now throughout all of its range.”
In the rule, the service states that the primary threat to the Jollyville Plateau salamander and Austin blind salamander is the degradation of habitat due to reduced water quality and quantity from increased urbanization and disturbance of spring sites. The service’s overall concern regarding habitat degradation is that “the ranges of the Austin blind and Jollyville Plateau salamanders reside within increasingly urbanized areas of Travis and Williamson Counties that are experiencing rapid population growth.” The service uses impervious cover as a surrogate for urbanization and states that “the most commonly reported impervious cover level at which noticeable degradation to aquatic ecosystems begins to occur is approximately 10 percent.” The service is also concerned that increased urbanization leads to decreased water quantity, which will likely be exacerbated by climate change and drought.
The service also determined that existing conservation efforts that benefit the salamanders, as well as existing regulatory mechanisms, are inadequate and unlikely to prevent impacts to the species in the future. Even though 89 out of the 106 known Jollyville Plateau salamander sites are located in permanently preserved areas, the rule relies on data from the City of Austin and concludes that these conservation efforts are not enough because many protected sites are experiencing water quality degradation from disturbances upstream and outside of preserved areas. In the rule, the service states that the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program, other Texas water quality programs administered by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and local development ordinances are insufficient to prevent impacts to the species now and in the future.
The Critical Habitat Rule
The rule also designates 120 acres of critical habitat for the Austin blind salamander and 4,331 acres of critical habitat for the Jollyville Plateau salamander. The service designated critical habitat units by delineating areas that it determined are occupied by one of the salamander species and contain elements of “physical or biological features essential for the conservation of the species.” Surface critical habitat encompasses all known occupied spring locations, an 80-meter circle around each spring for surface critical habitat (excluding all manmade structures), and a 300-meter circle around each spring for subterranean critical habitat. Even though the service states that it is only designating occupied critical habitat, the rule repeatedly states that “the extent to which the subterranean populations of these species exist belowground away from outlets of the spring system is unknown.”
The rule excludes 576 acres of Jollyville Plateau salamander critical habitat because the service determined that three existing habitat conservation plans specifically cover and protect the Jollyville Plateau salamander populations that occur in the plan areas. The service did not exclude any areas from critical habitat based on economic impacts, even though state and local governments repeatedly stated during previous public comment periods that the service underestimates the economic impacts of critical habitat designation.
The listing of the Austin blind salamander and Jollyville Plateau salamander has the potential to change public and private development in Travis County and Williamson County because until a more predictable process is established, any project that may impact these species will likely require some level of coordination with the service. In addition, any project with a federal connection (for example, through a federal permit or funding) that may affect either species or designated critical habitat will need to engage in ESA section 7 consultation with the service. Because the rule emphasizes increasing urbanization as the main threat to these species by degrading water quality and quantity, anyone with planned development projects occurring over the Edwards Aquifer should be aware of this new rule and consult with a qualified biologist to determine what steps, if any, need to be taken to ensure ESA compliance. Furthermore, project proponents in Williamson County and Bell County need to stay tuned to the service’s decisions regarding the Georgetown and Salado salamanders, which will be published in the Federal Register by February 22, 2014.