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Prairie dogs get reprieve

State repeals order to kill animals in Lubbock to allow further study

By LEE HANCOCK / The Dallas Morning News

Citing a need for additional scientific study, the state's chief environmental agency has rescinded an order directing the city of Lubbock to exterminate thousands of prairie dogs at its wastewater disposal farm, the agency's director said Monday.

The announcement came the same day that a coalition of environmental and animal rights groups filed suit in state district court in Austin challenging the agency's order and a related city plan to kill thousands of the animals this winter.

Margaret Hoffman, executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said officials reached the decision after meeting last week with the head of the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife.

The parks department, the state's chief wildlife protection agency, had joined with federal wildlife officials and environmental groups objecting to TCEQ's determination that prairie dogs caused rising underground water pollution problems at the Lubbock site.

A spokesman for one of the environmental groups praised the reversal.

"It's a pleasant surprise," said Scott Royder, director of the Texas office of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "We're pleased that TCEQ finally appears to be moving in a scientifically sound direction."

A Lubbock city employee said the mayor and city manager were in meetings Monday and unavailable for comment.

The city has used the 6,000-acre farm since the 1930s to dispose of its sewage wastewater, spraying about 8 million gallons of effluent a day on about 3,000 acres of rye grass pastures.

But so much water has been put on the site over the years that a large pool laden with high levels of nitrates from sewage water has collected about 70 feet underground. Since 1989, the farm has been under a state cleanup order because the nitrates - a health hazard - have seeped into wells and threaten the Ogallala Aquifer.

Lubbock officials have complained for several years that prairie dogs have spread rapidly on the farm since the mid-'90s.

State wildlife experts and others have estimated that 40,000 to 60,000 prairie dogs occupy about 750 acres of the farm. Fewer than a third of them live in areas are under irrigation. City officials and wildlife experts say they moved onto the farm at the same time city officials switched to pasture grass - a practice that brings the city about $500,000 annually from cattle grazing.

In June, the state environmental office formally notified the city that prairie dog burrows could allow wastewater nitrates to seep into the groundwater and ordered a plan to deal with problem.

The city's response, approved by the agency in September, called for gassing or poisoning the farm's entire prairie dog population this winter, after federally protected burrowing owls use the prairie dog burrows for nests.

Wildlife advocates noted that TCEQ's June order and subsequent approval of Lubbock's extermination plan were baffling, because the agency's own groundwater experts had complained since 1999 that city mismanagement and noncompliance with a state-approved pollution remediation plan caused the nitrate problem.

Ms. Hoffman said Monday that her agency had received "quite a few phone calls and e-mails" complaining about its role in the prairie dog debate.

"We have already instituted the procedures here to amend that notice of violation, to remove the assessment of blame against the prairie dogs and to ask the city of Lubbock to further assess the scientific basis, the underlying scientific reasons for the spikes of nitrates are occurring, and to give us a plan to address all the potential causes," she said.

She said the decision to issue a formal order citing the prairie dogs may have been premature.

"When the inspector looked at the area, what he saw was that there had been a dramatic increase in prairie dogs and a decrease in the amount of grass," she said. "That does not necessarily mean ... the prairie dogs are the cause of the problem."

State and federal wildlife experts who have looked at the farm's prairie dog towns say they believe bare areas where grass no longer grows are due to salt contamination arising from the city's wastewater irrigation program.

Ms. Hoffman said her agency will decide after visiting with city officials on how much more time Lubbock will be given to submit a new plan for dealing with the nitrate woes.

"Sixty days may be a reasonable time," she said. "They have had a groundwater contamination problem there for quite a while."

Ms. Hoffman said the agency might still consider city arguments that the prairie dogs contribute to the farm's continuing groundwater nitrate spikes. And if scientific evidence backs that up, the director said, the city will have to "determine a reasonable plan" for addressing the problem.

Environmental groups say that prospect will keep them from dropping their legal battle any time soon.

E-mail lhancock@dallasnews.com

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