COMPARED to the spotted owl, the fountain darter isn't well known. But the tiny Central Texas fish has become a focal point of a decades-long battle over the water in the Edwards Aquifer. Barely two inches long, the endangered fountain darter could ultimately decide who wins the showdown: the farmers or the cities. For decades, farmers in central Texas have been pumping water from the Edwards Aquifer to irrigate their fields. At the same time, the rapidly growing city of San Antonio has been tapping the vast underground reservoir to foster growth.
Also, towns north of San Antonio where aquifer-fed springs bubble to the surface, attract thousands of tourists annually. Despite these powerful economic interests, the spring-dwelling fountain darter and the federal law that protects it may be the deciding factor in an intractable fight over water rights in central Texas.
Michael Spear, regional director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service office in Albuquerque, N.M., says the situation ``could rival the spotted owl in terms of impact on people. In the Northwest, it's fairly easy to determine that cutting down a tree will hurt the spotted owl. But we are dealing with an aquifer where it's hard to determine the impact of an individual user.''
Every day, 1.3 million central Texas farmers and residents draw half a billion gallons of cool, clear water from the Edwards Aquifer. Another 300 million gallons flow from aquifer-fed artesian springs that host four federally protected endangered species; the fountain darter, two kinds of salamander, and a species of wild rice.
If the the fountain darter's name has a familiar ring, that can be attributed to the three-inch snail darter, which in the 1970s temporarily stopped construction of the Tellico Dam in Tennessee. That darter and its naturalist friends lost when Congress in 1978 granted an exemption from wildlife protection laws.
Covering about 3,500 square miles, the Edwards Aquifer is the most reliable source of water in a hot, arid climate. But as more people have moved into the San Antonio area, more water is being pumped from the ground. Just as the cutting of the old-growth forest threatens the survival of the spotted owl in the Northwest, overpumping of the aquifer by central Texas well owners threatens the four species.
As more water is pumped out of the aquifer, the water level drops, decreasing the flow out of the San Marcos and Comal Springs. If the springs go dry, the rare species will die. When the aquifer drops to 619 feet above sea level, spring flow at Comal Springs stops.
In early July, the water level in the aquifer fell to 621 feet - causing federal officials and local environmentalists to threaten San Antonio with legal action if the springs dropped any lower. A few days later, heavy rains blanketed central Texas and the crisis was temporarily averted.
The largest city in the world totally dependent on ground water, San Antonio has grown rapidly over the past three decades. Now, with a population of more than 1 million, the historic Texas city consumes more than 60 percent of the water that is drawn out of the aquifer. And the city has been reluctant to conserve water despite a recent drought - a fact that angers farmers and residents of nearby towns.
San Antonio's refusal to conserve water or build surface water reservoirs has cast the city as the villain in the water battle. Weir LaBatt, a San Antonio City Council member, has been a vocal critic of the endangered species situation.
``Is Congress going to allow the ninth largest city to be brought to its knees by the fountain darter?'' Mr. LaBatt asks.
While LaBatt scorns the fountain darter, Paul Grohman, city manager for New Braunfels, a city of 32,000 residents 30 miles north of San Antonio, sees the rare fish as a blessing. Comal Springs has been attracting visitors to New Braunfels for more than a century and tourism brings the city $100 million a year. ``Comal Springs is the heart of this community,'' he says. ``Without the fountain darter, we wouldn't have any way to force San Antonio to deal with this issue.''
Mr. Grohman says that without the fountain darter, San Antonio politicians would have let Comal Springs go dry. ``You can't take more water out of the aquifer than the amount that is going in,'' he explains. ``But that is exactly what we are doing.''
The fight over the aquifer can be traced to Texas' right-of-capture law. On the books in Texas since 1843, right-of-capture allows landowners to pump as much water from beneath their land as they want. Texas is the only state in the Western United States that does not regulate groundwater usage. Most allocate groundwater the same way that surface water is regulated.
Farmers strongly oppose any changes in Texas water law. One of them, Rodney Reagan, says: ``San Antonio wants us to do all the sacrificing so they can get all the water.'' Mr. Reagan grows corn, oats, cotton, and cantaloupe on 1,200 acres of irrigated land near Uvalde, 100 miles west of San Antonio. ``Who's more important, human beings or critters?'' he asks.
The reluctance of farmers to stop irrigating has led many area residents to believe that the only way the fight will be resolved is through the courts. A lawsuit filed last year by a local river authority will try to prove that the aquifer is an underground river, which will make the water subject to state allocation. But the court fight could take years to resolve.
Another legal maneuver that could resolve the battle much sooner is an endangered-species lawsuit. The Texas Sierra Club has made plans to file suit under the Endangered Species Act if the springs are threatened again. If the suit is filed, a federal judge could then determine how the water is allocated.
Because the US Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for protecting endangered species, director Spear has found himself trying to mediate the conflict. He says he believes that Texas water laws will have to be modified if the problem is to be resolved. ``Something has to give,'' Spear said. ``And the Endangered Species Act is pretty strong. So the question becomes: Do these people want the right-of-capture law looked into by the federal government or the local government?
``Whether it's an endangered species now, or an industry five or 10 years from now, these people will have to deal with this issue sooner or later,'' he concluded. ``There are just too many people with straws in the ground.''