Image: Barton Springs salamander
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
The Barton Springs salamander, a unique species, is threatened by the drought across Texas.
updated 9/4/2009 10:38:43 AM ET 2009-09-04T14:38:43

The most severe drought in the nation is drying up one of Austin's most treasured natural resources, the spring-fed Barton Creek Pool where more than 400,000 visitors from around the world flock each year.

The drought is dragging into its third year in parts of central and southern Texas. Lakes, rivers and creeks are evaporating, cities have ordered residents to cut back on water use, and farmers' crops have been devastated.

While the blue-green waters of the 3-acre pool at Zilker Park may look clear and inviting when the crowds arrive for Labor Day weekend, the drought has taken a toll on the site where Robert Redford learned to swim and music fans cool off during the Austin City Limits festival.

The springs are flowing at about 25 percent of their average rate, threatening endangered salamanders and the swimming hole where the water is always about 68 degrees.

"We haven't had a drought like this since the '50s, so we're kind of in uncharted territories," said David Johns, a hydrologist with the city of Austin.

The pool is fed by the largest of the three underground springs known collectively as Barton Springs. The springs draw water from the Edwards Aquifer, a massive 160-mile underground water system. Water usually enters the Barton Springs portion of the aquifer through six creeks as well as caves, sinkholes and other openings, but there's been no significant rain for more than two years.

"You could roller-skate down the creek beds," Johns said.

The drought that began in 2007 is threatening the very existence of the Barton Springs salamander.

The 2 1/2- to 3-inch-long amphibian lives at the bottom of the springs and nowhere else in the world. With less water moving through, there's less dissolved oxygen that the gilled creatures need. Their numbers have been dropping rapidly, and scientists haven't spotted any juveniles recently, indicating they aren't reproducing.

No salamanders have been spotted in one spring for over a year. At the spring where they're most common, an average of about 160 have been counted each month this year. Last year, that average was about 700.

Laurie Dries, an evolutionary ecologist for the city, said she fears the salamanders may be going deeper into caves and openings where the Austin blind salamander lives. The two species might be competing for food or even eating each other, she said.

If conditions get much worse, the city may consider pulling the salamanders out of the springs and putting them in a captive breeding program.

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