Give and Take - Incidental Take Permit gives EAHCP partners certainty in water planning
he Edwards Aquifer Habitat Conservation Plan partners were granted an Incidental Take Permit (ITP) from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2013. However, there was nothing incidental about the seven-year application development process. And today, maintaining compliance with the ITP is all business for the EAHCP team.
“The whole purpose of everything we do as part of the EAHCP program is to comply with our Incidental Take Permit which outlines what we must do to protect the endangered species during a drought of record,” said Nathan Pence, EAHCP program manager. “The permit actually helps drive many of the decisions we make. From our research, we are learning how much water from the springs the species need to live in worst case drought scenarios. So you don’t spend extra dollars and resources going beyond those parameters.”
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) prohibits the "take" of listed species through direct harm or habitat destruction. In the 1982 ESA amendments, Congress authorized the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service to issue permits for the "incidental take" of endangered and threatened wildlife species. That means permit holders can proceed with an activity that is legal in all other respects, but that results in the "incidental" taking of a listed species.
“Our permit does specify a limit on the numbers of endangered species like the fountain darter or Texas blind salamander that we can ‘take’,” Pence explained. “And to reiterate, taking means doing any kind of harm to the species, disturbing their habitat or anything of that nature. Taking doesn’t just mean killing a darter or salamander. We know that public recreation, our field research and other types of activity near the spring openings causes harm to the species, so we’ve developed many programs to mitigate that habitat disturbance in order to maintain our permit.”
Pence noted that most people around the Edwards Aquifer Region are well aware of the various uses of the water from the aquifer. He also expressed that everyone knows during the 1950s drought of record, the Comal Springs went dry. While the Endangered Species Act didn’t exist at that time, the species did. In the 1990s, various organizations brought a lawsuit against the federal government because nothing had been done to protect the Edwards Aquifer endangered species. It was that lawsuit and the desire to maintain regional control of the Edwards Aquifer water use that jump started the various aquifer protection plans in place today. In fact, the creation of the Edwards Aquifer Authority was created to manage pumping from the Edwards Aquifer as a means to help protect spring flows in New Braunfels and San Marcos.
“Despite the great work and progress of the EAA, there was still no guarantee that the springs would not go dry in another drought of record,” Pence explained. “So in the 2006-2007 timeframe, stakeholders from around the Edwards Region came together to create a specific plan to keep the springs flowing during a drought of record. That plan was developed as a Habitat Conservation Plan and ultimately submitted in 2012 to Fish and Wildlife Service as part of the Incidental Take Permit application. It is important to understand that an ITP is a legally binding agreement between the U.S. Secretary of the Interior and the permit holders. In our case, that is the Edwards Aquifer Authority, City of New Braunfels, City of San Marcos, City of San Antonio through the San Antonio Water System and Texas State University.”
The Edwards Aquifer ITP will run through 2028. The 15-year Edwards Aquifer permit period is a relatively short timeframe for a typical ITP. But, the original EAHCP planning team knew the region still had much to learn about the Comal and San Marcos Springs systems. So, the team decided to spend the better part of the first permit cycle to become more knowledgeable able this ecosystem and then prepare to apply for a 30-50 year permit in 2028.
“This ITP permit process is obviously a lengthy and detailed path,” Pence concluded. “But, now that we have some very specific guidelines to follow, water providers and users in the Edwards Region have certainty in the amount of water they can count on from the Edwards. That goes a long way toward creating sound water management plans into the future. Our cities now have confidence that having a stable water supply is a positive element of their growing communities.”