Greens Fight Texas Over a Blind Salamander

     AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — Environmentalists sued Texas to try to save an endangered blind salamander and other species threatened by a highway project.
     The Austin blind salamander and Barton Springs salamander need springs, wet caves and groundwater to survive. The blind salamander does not have image-forming eyes because it has adapted to life in caves and subterranean springs. It is seldom seen and very little is known about.
     Also threatened by the highway project is the golden-cheeked warbler, a small songbird “that breeds only in central Texas where mature ash-juniper-oak woodlands occur,” the Center for Biological Diversity says in its July 18 federal lawsuit.
     The golden-cheeked warbler is threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation caused by removal of its nesting trees and foraging habitat, some of it due to construction activities.
     The Tucson-based environmental group and the Austin-based Save Our Springs Alliance says the Texas Department of Transportation did not do the interagency consultation the Endangered Species Act requires for projects such as the MoPac Intersections Improvements Project, a 2-mile long highway project in Travis County.
     The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned to list the Austin blind salamander as endangered in 2004 and it was listed as endangered in 2013. The Barton Springs salamander has been listed as endangered since 1997.
     Both salamanders survive only because of the Barton Springs section of the Edwards Aquifer, an enormous underground reservoir that provides drinking water to 2 million Texans, and extends south to San Antonio. Some of its waters feed Barton Springs in Austin, which was listed as an Archaeological and Historical District in 1985.
     Citing Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act, the environmental groups say the state “is relieved of the obligation to consult on its actions only where the action will have ‘no effect’ on listed species or designated critical habitat. ‘Effects determinations’ are based on the direct, indirect, and cumulative effects of the action when added to the environmental baseline and other interrelated and interdependent activities …
     “The end product of formal consultation is a biological opinion in which FWS [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service] determines whether the agency action will jeopardize the survival and recovery of listed species or will destroy or adversely modify the species’ critical habitat.”
     That’s the situation for MoPac, also called State Loop 1, the groups say. It crosses the recharge zone of the underground waters for Barton Springs, one of the most environmentally sensitive and significant areas in the state, and the only habitat for the Barton Springs salamander.
     For its Intersections Project, TxDOT plans to dig 23 feet below grade, directly into the cave-forming Edwards Aquifer and exposed limestone.
     Yet it claims in its June 26, 2015 Biological Evaluation that the project would have “no effect” on protected species or their habitats.
     The groups deny it: “TxDOT did not consider the cumulative impacts the Intersections Project would have when combined with these and other projects planned in the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer recharge zone,” they say.
     The state responded to their May 18 “intent to sue” letter on June 21, saying it had changed its “no effect” determination to “may affect,” but is “not likely to adversely affect” the species in question.
     The TxDOT also said in its letter that it had initiated consultation with FWS, but it was never completed. Therefore, “Based on plaintiffs’ information and belief, defendants have not completed consultation with FWS for the Intersections Project or implemented any measures to mitigate the impacts of the Intersections Project on endangered wildlife,” the complaint states.
     The TxDOT said it does not comment on litigation.
     Jennifer Loda, attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, told Courthouse News in an email: “The most disruptive effects for the salamanders will be the impacts to the water quality and quantity and changes in the water flow patterns. This would come from sedimentation and other pollutant runoff during the construction itself and ongoing in the future as a result of the additional highway space. The Intersections Project is in the recharge zone of the Edwards Aquifer so an increase in paved surfaces from the project will impact the recharge and impact the normal hydrology of the subsurface flows. The golden-cheeked warbler is most likely to be impacted by destruction or modification of its foraging habitat and disturbance during construction, such as from noise.”
     The groups seek injunctive and declaratory relief forcing TxDOT to complete the required consultation and enjoining construction until consultation is completed.
     Loda is with the Center for Biological Diversity’s office in Oakland, Calif. Co-counsel William Bunch and Kelly Davis are with the Save Our Springs Alliance in Austin.

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