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The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality
Rescinds Earlier Determination
*

     The TCEQ, formerly TNRCC, has officially stood-down its previous determination about the prairie dogs located on the City of Lubbock waste water treatment application site. According to reports, the Notice of Violation issued by the TCEQ has been ammended to "remove ... blame against the prairie dogs."

     This comes as a relief to everyone concerned about the rationality of the earlier determination, who may be thinking, "Well, it's about time!"  The entire problem revolved around a serious citation the City received for nitrate levels being far too high in the groundwater in and around the treatment site.

     Many people have wondered how the prairie dog issue ever got carried this far, but the real story is much longer, and much more complex.  Regardless, it was very obvious from the beginning that the prairie dogs could not have been to blame for the spike in water nitrate levels.  This "spike" has actually been accruing for years, and shockingly in the face of blaming the PDs, the City knew it!

     The PD blame sparked the public controversy when a TCEQ inspector erroneously cited the prairie dogs as significantly contributing to the nitrate pollution. Follow up reports indicated also that the prairie dog burrows were allowing the effluent from the treatment process to seep into the water table.  Even a highschool science student would recognize the ridiculousness of this statement.  The Ogallala Aquifer is not 10 feet underground, as this theory suggests. {Prairie dog burrows generally go 8 to 10 feet deep. If they did indeed have a habit of reaching the water table, the prairie dog would surely be more like the duck-billed platypus than the animal we know today.}  In addition, as mentioned below, few PDs actually live in the sprayed areas.

     A superlative article was published in the Dallas Morning News, on October 5, 2002, written by Lee Hancock, which covered this topic in depth.  Many in the Lubbock area know little about the long-standing problems which appeared on the City Farm's plate over three decades ago.  According to the article, in 1968—yes, sixty-eight—a large pool, 70 feet underground, was discovered at the site, having evidently accumulated from the constant flow of sprayed water.  Higher-than-normal nitrate levels were building up in this underground reservoir.

     The City reportedly knew in the 1980s that there was a rising nitrate problem. High nitrates are a health hazard, and must be strictly monitored and controlled.  By the end of the 80s, the City was informed that its spraying method was threatening the groundwater.  Even back then, some people living near the site could no longer use their own wells because the aquifer was being contaminated.  This time and place was far removed from the year 2002, when the PDs would be blamed.

     Additional warnings continued—in 1997, the City received warnings that it was improperly dispersing effluent.  A Professor at Lubbock's own Texas Tech University was even involved in a study, and warned the City then that nitrates were sure to rise if the current treatment method continued.  Further notices from the State included such language as "[The City] engaged in serious deviations" from previously approved effluent treatment plans. The City was also cited for not properly monitoring the entire operation in the first place.  Finally, in 2000, a formal notice arrived in the City's hands which stated Lubbock had violated the TCEQ's 1989 order for correction of the problem.

    It is also important to note that numerous PDs are a fairly recent arrival at the City Farm. The City started planting rye grass, in preparation for using the Farm for cattle grazing, sometime around 1996.  The PDs started becoming more numerous at that time.  

     The Dallas Morning News article states that the Texas Tech Professor advised the City that the rye grass was less effective in absorbing nitrates than the previous corn and wheat crops that had been grown. {Cattle and PDs both like rye grass.}  It is also important to note that the PDs occupy less than one-third of the City Farm's total area, and there aren't many in the specific monitoring areas where rising nitrates are being detected.

     FEDERAL grant offers, and the expertise to administer them, in an effort to correct the nitrate problem AND relocate PDs in specific areas, fell on the City's deaf ears. {This plan also suggested removing the cattle and utilizing plant species prone to absorb nitrates.}  It would be easy to conclude there is an interest to maintain cattle production at the City Farm. Curiously, it is commonly known many cattle producers despise prairie dogs, usually for mythical or invalid reasons.

     So, all in all, the PDs at the City Farm were manufactured into huge scapegoats, for a problem that they had nothing to do with.  For those interested in the welfare of native species like prairie dogs, burrowing owls, and the like, this whole affair has been a revolting, unfair and shameful spectacle.  However, it could be said that it is really to the benefit of the entire community that so many people care about the PDs, because larger City management issues have come to light.  

     For those interested in fair, informed and capable municipal management, what does this entire debacle speak of those charged with the public trust?  If the City had been successful in the destruction of the PD population at the City Farm, would this, then, had led to the portrayal, to Lubbock citizens {and voters}, that the problem was gone?  That the ills of the long-mishandled treatment facility were the cause of a native species, and that the evil PDs were killed to valiantly solve the problem?  Not.

     It is obvious to even the casual observer that uninformed, ignorant hatred of PDs may be at work in parts of the total plan to eradicate them from the City-owned land.  This hatred—borne from prejudices and mis-aligned stories passed on since Texas was settled—are unjust and intellectually unqualified.

     Certainly, we cannot suspend paving city streets or running electrical lines because a prairie dog mound is in the way, but there are ethical, humane ways to respect the bountiful, wonderful wildlife that does exist in West Texas.  Few native animals can claim such a rich heritage—the PD shares its fame with the eagle and the bison.  To invent the prairie dog into the villified demon portrayed in the recent City Farm fiasco is utterly disappointing, from all aspects—political, ethical and environmental.  Events like these spur major newspapers, in larger Texas cities, to print phrases such as "backwards and regressive" to describe Lubbock.

 

*The above narrative, while drawing upon reliable sources for technical details, is presented as an opinion piece, reflecting the values and thoughts of individuals who have great interest in preserving native prairie dog populations, including those on public lands.