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    Where's the Science?

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has made a dubious determination without on a single piece of evidence.  Lubbock environmental officer Dan Dennison told the Houston Chronicle that it was common sense:  prairie dogs dig holes, and “You don’t need a scientific study to know that water runs down holes.”  Apparently nobody told this environmental specialist that the water table lies between 50 and 90 feet underground. Prairie dogs rarely burrow more than 5 feet deep.  When pressed, TCEQ officials did cite a study that links prairie dogs to groundwater contamination.  What they failed to note was that this study calls the relationship “infinitesimally small.”

In fact, the only available evidence indicates the presence of prairie dogs may actually reduce the amount of effluent reaching the water table.  Their burrows aerate the soil and prevent compaction, which promotes growth of the rangeland grasses necessary to absorb water—including treated wastewater.   

Scientists around the state agree.  In a letter to the City of Lubbock, Texas Tech University Professor Clint Boal states his concern that “the entire case for prairie dog eradication is built purely on speculation.” A bluntly written letter from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department goes even further, stating that “TCEQ admitted having no evidence that prairie dogs  were creating problems at the LLAS,” and asking them to “revise” their notice of violation to the city.  But to date TCEQ has ignored these pleas.

So what is really going on here?  Lubbock city officials have been trying to remove the prairie dogs for years because local ranchers would prefer to use the LLAS for grazing.  They argue that the dogs compete with the cows for forage and dig burrows where cattle can stumble.  This convenient deal appeared to be the perfect solution:  TCEQ gets to look tough on pollution, something they are not famous for, and the city of Lubbock gets to say, “Hey, it’s not our fault, our hands are tied.”  The dogs are killed, and nobody is to blame.

The watershed is indeed experiencing pollution, but that is  because for a better part of this century Lubbock has dumped its treated human waste on the site.  In fact, the LLAS receives up to 14 million gallons of this muck every day — an amount that has steadily increased to way more than the land can handle.  Since the 1980s, nitrate levels have built up in the soil.  For precisely this reason, wholesale sewage spreading is frowned upon in most of the developed world.

The non-native rye grass now planted for the 3,000 head of cattle currently grazing the site does not absorb nearly the same amount of effluent that native grasses would.  And cattle grazing, more than any single factor, eliminate nitrate-absorbing vegetation.  In fact, the cows were moved onto the site about the same time that the prairie dogs arrived, but TNRCC has conveniently not assessed the cattle’s effect on the soil.

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