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Blind salamandar[Excerpt] Who would believe that a translucent sightless amphibian that dwells only in dark underground caves could force a big Texas city to not only slash its water use but make water waste illegal? But the rare, four-inch Texas blind salamander has done pretty much just that – and spawned an unusual water story in San Antonio, where impressive conservation efforts are now being tested by one of the worst droughts in memory.

While most Americans can’t even name the source of their drinking water, many San Antonians know not just their water source – an underground limestone formation called the Edwards Aquifer– but its height above sea level. That’s because that level, which is posted every day on the city water authority’s website, determines whether they can sprinkle their lawns — and whether the water police are likely to be out in full force.  Recently the Edwards level has measured between 640 and 650 feet, which means that residents can irrigate only once a week. If the aquifer’s level drops below 640 feet, the city will declare Stage 3 Drought and allow landscape watering only every other week.

So what’s all the fuss about the level of the Edwards Aquifer?  Enter the Texas blind salamander.

By the early 1990s heavy pumping from the Edwards had substantially reduced flows in San Marcos and Comal Springs, which harbor seven unique and endangered species, including the fountain darter, the Comal Springs riffle beetle, the Texas blind salamander, and Texas wild rice.  These species are found nowhere else in the world, so their local extinction from these aquifer-fed ecosystems would mean their exit from the planet.  The Sierra Club and others filed a lawsuit under the federal Endangered Species Act to limit pumping so as to sustain flows to the springs.  In response, the Texas legislature established the Edwards Aquifer Authority, which is charged with enforcing a cap on pumping that will keep the springs flowing and the species’ habitats in tact.

Last week, I met with the talented team at the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) that is responsible for figuring out how this south-central Texas city can grow and thrive while living within these water limits.  While focused intensely on the current drought, SAWS is aggressively tapping water conservation, wastewater recycling and groundwater recharge as long term solutions to their water dilemma...

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Originally posted July 14, 2011 at National Geographic as part of their special freshwater initative

Image credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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