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Conservation Plan Keeps Edwards Aquifer Full of Life
by Kevin Connally
Photo Credit: Joe N. Fries, USFWS
For Texans suffering through the seventh straight year of drought, the summer of 1956 seemed especially brutal. Crops were on the verge of failing yet again and livestock were struggling to survive on the parched range. Then, the unthinkable happened. On June 13, Comal Springs – part of the Edwards Aquifer system and one of the largest freshwater springs in the southwest – stopped flowing for the first time in recorded history.
Edwards Aquifer is not just a key source of water for over 2 million Texans. It also supports many unique flora and fauna, including the federally endangered Texas blind salamander (Typhlomolge rathbuni), which has been confined to the aquifer's dark caves and subterranean waters for so long that they have lost the need for eyes. Whooping cranes (Grus Americana) depend on the inflows from the springs of the Edwards Aquifer to maintain estuaries where they spend their winters on the Texas coast. The spring-fed Comal and San Marcos rivers also host the fountain darter (Etheostoma fonticola), a small fish found nowhere else in the world.
Just this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) and stakeholders implemented a Habitat Conservation Plan to balance conservation goals for endangered and threatened species with human demand for water.
Edwards Aquifer is like an underground river, flowing 180 miles through south-central Texas, emerging at the springs at Comal and nearby San Marcos. Clean, fresh water has attracted the region's inhabitants for as long as there have been people in Texas. Spanish missionaries reported large encampments of Native Americans when they first arrived at Comal Springs in 1691.
For more than four months in 1956, the pools of water in the drying riverbed slowly shriveled under the summer sun. Rain on November 4 brought the springs back to life, but the fountain darters in the Comal River were already gone.
Photo Courtesy of the Edwards Aquifer Authority.
Concerned citizens and researchers began realizing that the Edwards Aquifer was like no other ecosystem. More than 40 native plants and animals are found nowhere else in the world. It was also becoming apparent that these species could face the same fate as the fountain darters at Comal Springs. In the 1970s, a small number of fountain darters from San Marcos Springs were introduced into the Comal system, and the populations remaining today are the result of this effort. Meanwhile, Texas' human population continued to grow, and the expanding cities, farms and industries began to exert greater demands on the water supply shared by the region's wildlife.
By the 1990s, some had become concerned that unregulated groundwater pumping coupled with another drought like that of the 1950s could spell disaster for the area's fish and wildlife.
In 2006, the Service invited interested parties to discuss approaches to the challenges of aquifer management to balance the region's water needs with those of listed species. The Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Program (EARIP) was created to understand the needs of the area's growing population, requirements of listed species and the potential effects of a drought like the one in the 1950s.
The EARIP determined that current pumping volumes during a drought like the one of the 1950s would stop springflows at Comal Springs for more than 39 months. This would be a disaster not just for the area's wildlife but for the people and the entire south-central Texas economy that rely on this water.
Under the leadership of EARIP Manager Dr. Robert Gulley, the stakeholders built consensus around a plan in which all participants agreed to contribute water to protect the springs during drought, and they crafted the HCP to help secure the regional economy dependent upon the waters of the Edwards Aquifer while achieving recovery goals for listed species.
The EARIP and the Service are committed to ensuring that the springs at Comal and San Marcos continue to flow, and that species like the fountain darter and the Texas blind salamander survive, even if Texas experiences another drought like the one in 1956.
Kevin Connally, a fish and wildlife biologist in the Service's Austin Ecological Services Field Office, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 512-490-0057, ext. 234.
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