Jun 3, 2024 - News

Mussels get endangered designation

a photo of mussels in the sand.

Texas fatmucket mussels are now listed as endangered. Photo: Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Capping a political and environmental battle that has lasted at least a decade, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is listing seven freshwater mussels found in Central Texas as endangered.

Why it matters: The listing of the mussels could have long-term consequences for how much water cities, manufacturers and farmers can pull from Central Texas rivers.

Driving the news: The feds announced Monday they are designating 1,577 river miles as critical habitat for the species in four Central Texas river basins — including Austin's Colorado river basin — to protect the mussel species.

  • The species have colorful names like the Guadalupe fatmucket and the Texas pimpleback.

Catch up quick: Once abundant throughout the four river basins, the mussel species have declined in recent years due to reduced water quality and habitat destruction, per the Fish and Wildlife Service.

What they're saying: "These unique freshwater mussels are found nowhere else in the world but in the rivers and streams of Central Texas," Amy Lueders, the service's southwest regional director, said in a statement. "Saving these mussels isn't just about preserving the biodiversity of the region, it also helps protect the waterways that people rely on for water and recreation."

The other side: Susan Combs, who served from 2007-2015 as state comptroller, successfully pushed for millions of dollars in state money to aggressively ward off endangered species listings, which she once referred to as "incoming Scud missiles."

  • The money was used to hire researchers at state universities to offer a potentially competing account of the dangers faced by disappearing species.
  • The current comptroller, Glenn Hegar, has had a more conciliatory approach, even as he continued to fund research to "ensure the best science is available."
  • In 2019, the Fish and Wildlife Service decided to remove two different Texas mussel species from a potential endangered listing following research bankrolled by the comptroller's office.

Between the lines: "Listing of the mussels would lead to federal oversight of their aquatic habitats, which most likely involve federal mandates to augment environmental flows in many streams and rivers in central Texas," the Austin-based conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation argued in a 2019-20 Legislator's Guide.

  • "Dedicating this water to habitat conservation could significantly limit water supply available for human use."

What's next: Last year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a 20-year agreement with the Lower Colorado River Authority, the nonprofit utility that manages the Highland Lakes and the river, to conserve four of the freshwater mussel species.

  • Under the deal, the river authority will take conservation measures to minimize impacts on mussel habitats, conduct public outreach and education about the mussels, and ensure enough water is kept in the rivers to protect the species.
  • The river authority will get more leeway from the federal government for what's known as "incidental take" of the species.

Follow the money: Satisfying the deal's terms will cost the LCRA nearly $40 million over the next two decades, per cost estimates included in the agreement.

Meanwhile: The LCRA is engaged in an unrelated, and arguably much bigger problem, to figure out ways to suppress invasive zebra mussels that have invaded Central Texas waterways.

  • There is no known large-scale species-specific eradication method for zebra mussels, which have already interfered with Austin water treatment plants, forcing the city to spend millions of dollars to combat the creatures.
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