Naked City

It's in the Water

Environmentalists now say the "check here if you won't endanger the Barton Springs Salamander" approach to pollution prevention will no longer cut it.

Emphasizing that storm-water runoff is one of the greatest dangers to the survival of the salamander, the Save Our Springs Alliance and UT biologist Mark Kirkpatrick filed a lawsuit last week against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, claiming that the agencies do little to prevent construction pollution from harming the endangered species. The Save Barton Creek Association joined the lawsuit Monday night.

All landowners are required to get a permit from the EPA if they plan to develop five acres or more in the 354-square-mile Barton Springs Zone that covers portions of Travis, Hays, and Blanco counties. SOS attorneys say the permit application makes it easy for the developers to simply check off a box that says their project will not impact endangered species.

"Instead of using any scientific information, [the EPA] essentially delegated to the landowners a decision on whether they impact the species," says Amy Johnson, an attorney heading the lawsuit for SOS. "If a developer says 'No,' no further action is taken."

Johnson says the lawsuit also targets the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) because the agency should take the lead in formal permit reviews. However, she acknowledges that the local branch of the service has made ongoing requests to the EPA for a more stringent process, without receiving a satisfactory response. Bill Seawell, assistant field supervisor for FWS in Austin, says a "tighter process" is needed to review construction permits, but that currently, the service only responds to complaints of pollution affecting endangered species.

The EPA would not comment on the lawsuit until it was officially served. Taylor Sharpe, the Region 6 EPA enforcement officer in Dallas, says developers are supposed to include the methods they used to assess impacts to endangered species in a mandatory stormwater plan. However, he notes that the permit process does not require developers to file their Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plans with the EPA, so no one would ever know if they were in compliance unless a complaint were made and an inspection done.

Environmentalists say they had hoped the EPA would tighten up its permit reviews on its own, but now realize that a lawsuit is the only option for getting the process changed. "Unfortunately, the EPA is failing to protect Austin's jewel -- Barton Springs -- from pollution from construction," says SOS chair Mary Arnold.

UT biologist Kirkpatrick says that alarming levels of harmful petroleum hydrocarbons, arsenic, copper, and cadmium have been found recently in the sediment at Barton Springs Pool, as well as increased levels of nitrogen and phosphorus responsible for algae blooms. "The scientific evidence tells us that the salamander's survival is directly threatened by pollution," he says.

Environmentalists also maintain that the EPA should use the "best available science," as required by the Endangered Species Act, to determine whether developers will impact the salamander. Currently, no science at all is required. Sharpe says that ideally, developers in the Barton Springs Zone would consult with FWS to determine if planned construction will have an impact on the species. But no requirements on how to assess impacts have been mandated, he says.

  • More of the Story

  • Naked City

    Ken Martin sells In Fact to Jo Clifton; Log Cabin Republicans set up a "booth in exile" at Republican convention; debuts; Whole Foods closes its Web site.

    Naked City

    Lloyd Doggett’s 40 acres stand in the path of a proposed extension to the Bull Creek Greenbelt, but he’d rather develop the property into houses than sell the land to the city.

    Naked City

    T.J. Higginbotham, a landowner in Hays County, wants to drill a well to produce 50 million gallons a year, reportedly to serve two proposed subdivisions in Dripping Springs, but Barton Springs-Edwards Aquifer Conservation District board members aren’t biting.
  • Naked City

    The Texas Supreme Court agrees with the city of Austin that exemptions from water quality regulations for large landowners are unconstitutional, extending Austin’s winning streak in court.

    Naked City

    The city and the Anderson Community Development Corp. part ways over the Anderson Hills development in East Austin, which suffered from costs overruns and excessive developer’s fees, but the project will likely still be built with loans and private funds.

    Naked City

    Action Items

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More by Rob D'Amico
Opportunity Knocks – Not Once, but Twice
Opportunity Knocks – Not Once, but Twice
A boy’s chance meetings with the stars of 'Boyhood'

July 16, 2014

The Bicycle Thief
The Bicycle Thief
Police say James Clayton befriended – then ripped off – many Austin bicyclists

April 10, 2009


Barton Springs Salamander, Save Our Springs Alliance, Mark Kirkpatrick, Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Save Barton Creek Association, Amy Johnson, Bill Seawell, Taylor Sharpe, Mary Arnold

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle