The Austin Chronicle

Man Bites Prairie Dogs!

By Dave Mann, August 30, 2002, News

For over 50 years, Lubbock has operated one of the state's largest wastewater application fields, sprinkling waste from the city's sewage treatment plant on pastureland outside of town. In the last decade, nitrate has seeped into ground water below the site -- contamination that city officials and state regulators say is caused by a community of prairie dog burrows in the fields. And now they have a simple solution to their ground water pollution: Kill the prairie dogs.

Arguing that Lubbock has no studies or evidence implicating the prairie dogs -- a threatened species -- members of the Texas chapter of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and other state environmentalists have deemed city's plan ludicrous and grossly inhumane. Prairie dogs burrow several feet below the surface, but nitrate pollution in the ground water is 50 to 90 feet underground, they point out. The most likely cause of the pollution is oversaturation of the land, the enviros say.

"The city of Lubbock and the [Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission] do not have the data to prove the prairie dogs pollute ground water," said P.E.E.R.'s Scott Royder, who is based in Austin. "They're using this as a scapegoat to cover up a 70-year pollution problem." This week Royder is in Lubbock to help present a resolution to the city's prairie dog working group calling for further study before action is taken.

Dan Dennison, Lubbock's environmental compliance manager, said the prairie dog colony inhibits growth of crops that suck nitrate from the soil, and that the burrows also allow wastewater to "bypass" the crops' root systems. "There is science behind it," he said. "It's been done right here on the high plains of Texas. It's real." The city plans to trap and relocate as many prairie dogs as possible until some time this winter. At that point, if plans hold, the rest will be poisoned.

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