DIGGING A HOLE
Pity Lubbock’s poor prairie dogs. After years of being loathed by ranchers because of the broken legs of horses and cattle that step into dog-dug holes, the burrowing rodents are now being blamed for a half-century-old groundwater pollution problem. The state has instructed Lubbock to evict the prairie dogs, by any means necessary.
Since at least the 1940s, Lubbock has disposed of its treated wastewater by using it to irrigate about 1,700 acres of prairie to the east of town called the Lubbock Land Application Site (LLAS). At first there were no restrictions on volume, but the land couldn’t support the abundance of nitrates and the groundwater became contaminated with them. In 1989, the Texas Water Commission (now TNRCC) issued an “enforcement action” directing Lubbock to remedy the situation. Lubbock has been working on it ever since, restricting volume, planting nitrate-absorbent crops, and changing over to more efficient “center-pivot” irrigation.
The dogs have always been around, but now they’re thriving.
“It’s almost like the city is providing perfect habitat for prairie dogs,” says TNRCC’s Patrick Cooke, “and I guess that’s why they’ve been able to explode like they have. There’s always water going over it, there’s always a nice healthy crop that’s being grown, the soil is just perfect for them.”
That happy circumstance might have remained a model of inadvertent habitat creation, but in 1997, TNRCC noticed that after years of declining nitrates in the groundwater, they started to level off and then rise again.
And so on June 3 of this year, TNRCC sent Lubbock notice of an exceptionally vague “alleged violation.” To wit: “Failure to take all reasonable steps to minimize or prevent any discharge or disposal which has a reasonable likelihood of adversely affecting human health or the environment.”
“Specifically,” the notice went on, “prairie dogs have been allowed to proliferate across the… site to such a degree as to create conditions which could possibly lead to groundwater contamination.”
TNRCC gave Lubbock 60 days to come up with a plan. Not a plan to lower the nitrate levels, but to “control the prairie dog population across the LLAS.”
TNRCC’s thinking is this: The dogs may eat crops needed to absorb nitrogen, and the dogs dig holes up to five feet deep, which may channel the irrigation water below the “root zone” of absorbent crops to trickle, unfiltered, into the dome of over-nitrated groundwater below. TNRCC, says Cooke, sees the dogs as “a possible source of contamination, if not now, in the future, and that’s why we’re asking for some type of control, one way or another.”
Environmental groups immediately raised a ruckus, and with good reason. The most economically feasible way to “control” a thriving colony is to exterminate it. And so far, TNRCC has presented no evidence to support the idea that the prairie dogs are harming anything, much less water quality.
Cooke admits that his agency “never said that the prairie dogs are causing contamination.” And as for the rising nitrate levels, “We’re not assessing blame on prairie dogs for that. We don’t actually know what’s causing it to go back up. We don’t have a clue.”
How many dogs are there? Cooke doesn’t know. How many is too many?
“That’s a good question… That depends. I can just tell you that if I go out there and I see prairie dogs all over the place, that’s a problem. If I see very few, then I know we’ve had some serious control.”
According to Scott Royder, director of Texas Public Employees for Environ-mental Responsibility (TXPEER), the lack of data behind TNRCC’s directive is outrageous. The real problem, he suggests, is the continued dumping of up to 14 million gallons of wastewater per day on the site, the planting of non-native rye grass that absorbs less nitrogen than native grasses, and cattle grazing that destroys more of the crop than a whole town of prairie dogs.
Stymied, and beleaguered by protests from the Humane Society, Sierra Club, Audubon Society, and PETA, Lubbock requested and received a two-week extension to come up with a plan.
Texas Parks & Wildlife numbers indicate between 50,000 and 100,000 dogs on the site, and the options for removing them include trapping and relocation, poison, and deadly blasts of propane gas.
Trapper Lynda Watson is working on the site now, hired by the Llano Estacado Native American Society to relocate as many as she can–some to a state park near San Angelo, others to Japanese clients, who keep them as pets–before the wholesale massacre begins.
On August 20, Lubbock announced its plan to poison the dogs and seal their burrows. But both Lubbock and the dogs may have been given a brief reprieve, courtesy of–we are not making this up–migratory burrowing owls. The owls, protected as endangered in Canada, lay their eggs in abandoned dog holes, and Lubbock Assistant City Manager Richard Burdine has said that the city won’t pursue dog control until the owls leave for the southwest, usually around December.
“Our primary concern is protecting the burrowing owls,” Burdine says now. The dogs, meanwhile, continue to await their fate. And 60 to 90 feet below the Land Application Site, someone somewhere perhaps remembers, is a growing dome of groundwater increasingly contaminated by sources that have nothing to do with either burrowing owls or prairie dogs–the one thing for which TNRCC hasn’t demanded a plan.
Last fall we reported on the troubled Chambers County Narcotics Task Force in rural Southeast Texas, which, according to several former employees, has become a disastrous counter-example of how the drug war should be run (see “The Numbers Game,” by Nate Blakeslee, October 26, 2001). In the wake of that report–which detailed first-hand accounts of corruption, racial targeting, statistic padding, and general incompetence–the project director, local District Attorney Mike Little, told the Chambers County Commissioners Court that he’d just as soon give up the state-funded project, it had become such a pain in the ass for him. But the commissioners could not stomach the alternative–turning the task force over to the Chambers County Sheriff’s Department–and decided to stick with Little. Wise move. Over the course of the last three months, the sheriff’s department, led since January 2001 by Sheriff Monroe Kreuzer, has publicly self-destructed. Five deputies (out of twenty) have quit or been fired, and four have been indicted, including the chief deputy, Dearl Hardy.
Hardy, readers will recall, was formerly the assistant commander of the drug task force and featured prominently in the misadventures chronicled in these pages last fall. Not long after he was drummed out of the task force (Hardy claimed he left for “personal reasons”) the newly-elected Kreuzer made Hardy his first hire at the sheriff’s department. (He did have experience, after all.) It was downhill from there. Hardy immediately hired some of his former associates and began setting up his own drug interdiction outfit at the sheriff’s office, but things did not go exactly as planned. First there were the dogs: Hardy bought five drug dogs at a cost of around $10,000 each, apparently without obtaining county approval. Hardy’s boys have since managed to kill two of the dogs. (A third ripped Hardy’s shoulder out of its socket, to even the score a little.) Now the county is refusing to pay for the dogs, and the dog outfitter is threatening to sue. Then one of Hardy’s hires, Deputy David Beck, was accused of a theft that allegedly occurred during a drug interdiction traffic stop. Beck, who was fired from the department, is still under investigation. Next came deputy Crystal Schoppe’s (another Hardy hire) firing and subsequent indictment for improper sexual conduct with a prisoner.
The thread that finally caused the outfit to unravel completely was the arrest–and beating–of Vernon Coates. Sheriff’s deputies claimed that Coates, who is black, had tried to run them over during an altercation in Anahuac in March of last year. They followed him to his house and, according to witnesses at the house and at the hospital, beat him severely in the course of arresting him. While recovering from the beating, Coates learned he was being charged with attempted murder. This was later reduced to two counts of aggravated assault, but Coates was still looking at up to 99 years.
In September of last year, Coates was stopped again while out on bond and charged with a DWI. With the help of an inside source, Coates’ attorney Ed Lieck discovered that the charges were fabricated. The arresting officers, Deputies John Joslin and Scott Hulsey, were indicted for tampering with government records and perjury. Hulsey and Joslin then flipped on Hardy, claiming he put them up to it to further discredit Coates prior to his upcoming assault trial. Hardy finally got the axe in July, and, on August 17, he became the fourth officer indicted in the last two months. He is facing perjury and tampering charges, which could mean up to 14 years in prison. All charges against Coates (including the assault charge) have been dropped, and the new chief deputy is taking applications.