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LCRA board gives green light to build water pipeline to Dripping Springs

Thursday, May 25, 2000 by

Environmental groups disappointed but see positive potential

The unanimous vote yesterday by the board of the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) to approve the expedited extension of water service to existing development in the Dripping Springs area drew cautious responses from environmental organizations, including two that had previously issued notices of intent (NOI) to sue the LCRA over the $25 million project. Both the Hays County Water Planning Partnership (HCWPP) and the Save Our Springs Alliance (SOSA) have previously promised to sue the LCRA if it went forward with the project. (See In Fact Daily Aug. 24, 1999, and Sept. 17, 1999.)

The LCRA board's approval was based on a declaration by the Hays County Commissioners Court of a water emergency after residents of the northeast part of the county reported dry wells, water shortages, and water quality problems. In a survey of 254 residents of the Sunset Canyon subdivision, about 30 percent reported water supply problems and 60 percent reported water quality problems.

The LCRA pipe line project would initially provide wholesale backup water service to some 1,000 homes served by the Dripping Springs Water Supply Corp. and retail service to about 500 homes outside of existing retail service areas.

SOSA Chair Mary Arnold strongly opposed the LCRA's renewed enthusiasm for the pipe line it promised in December not to build until completing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). In a May 22 letter to the LCRA board and general manager, Arnold wrote that the immediate needs of Sunset Canyon homeowners could be met with an interim or emergency response that is much more affordable, much quicker and which does not effectively foreclose the building of community consensus and evaluation of alternative water solutions. She suggested service from the Hill Country Water Supply Corp. (a wholesale customer of the City of Austin) "could be provided quickly and much more cheaply and without committing the entire region to a water system that could serve 10 or more times the amount of existing development."

Last night Arnold wouldn't say there was no longer a basis for pursuing litigation but added "we will not file immediately." Arnold says the NOI "was based on the need for Section 7 consultation between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the LCRA. We're going to have that consultation now. The thing we will discuss with them is whether the proposed expedited, two-month consultation process will sufficiently comply with federal law."

Of the LCRA board's decision, Arnold says, "I'm disappointed and there's still a lot of work to be done." However, she adds, "I was pleased at the tenor of comments indicating an interest in more dialog and in different viewpoints coming together and trying to work out a consensus for regional planning in the watershed."

"FWS always wanted for the local people to take charge," Arnold says. "I think it's possible to begin to bring people together and talk things over because of the pressure from FWS." She said regional planning needs to address not only environmental issues but roads and parks.

HCWPP Chair Erin Foster says the possibility of litigation will be taken up at the next board meeting, scheduled for June 2. "We're keeping it open as an option," she said. Foster called the LCRA board's decision "very disappointing and painful." "We're watching them make decisions based on hysteria and deception," Foster says. "I think in the long run people will find that out."

She characterized the proposed water quality standards in the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the LCRA and FWS as "good" but worries about how they will be enforced. "If the City of Dripping Springs would adopt the MOU (standards) in an ordinance and Hays County would adopt them in subdivision rules, it would be better."

Jon Beall, president of the Save Barton Creek Association, says of the MOU, "I think it's a win-win situation. They get water for the people running out of water. They also get significant water quality provisions." Beall calls the proposed standards in the MOU "better than SOS in some respects" and notes the standards possibly could be further strengthened as a result of the required Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Beall says the MOU is stronger than the one originally proposed in December.

"The only downside is they will get 90,000 more people out there," Beall adds, based on his estimate of the eventual increased population that would be served when all three phases of the water pipeline project are built out. Only Phase I of the project is to be constructed as a result of the board's approval yesterday.

"We have always wanted some kind of plan," Beall says. "I've come to the conclusion the only way to get one–unless there's a sea-change in Texas–is through an MOU like this, so we're going to get a plan. It remains to be seen how (area governments) can enforce it."

Environmental protection provisions

The environmental safeguards for the water line project rests upon the proposed water quality regulations in an MOU between LCRA and FWS that was signed May 17 by Dave Frederick, Austin field supervisor for the FWS, and signed yesterday by LCRA General Manager Joe Beal. The LCRA and the U.S. Corps of Engineers (COE) have agreed to consult with FWS as outlined in Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act concerning the impact of pipeline construction and service to existing and new development before initiation of pipeline construction.

As part of the consultation, the LCRA will submit water quality protection measures specified in Exhibit C of the MOU. In a May 23 letter to SOSA Chair Arnold, Beal and LCRA Board Chair Steve Rivers stated that these water protection measures in essence implement "the SOS initiative for the 70 percent of the Barton Springs watershed that the Austin initiative could never hope to reach under any foreseeable circumstances." FWS, as part of its biological opinion, will review these water quality protection measures for new development to be served by the pipeline.

Based on its consultation with LCRA and COE, FWS will designate water quality standards that would apply to new development to be served from the water line. New development is defined to exclude existing homes and currently platted lots with readily available electric service and direct access to existing streets or roads.

The provisions of the MOU will control how service is provided to new development until completion of the EIS or Jan. 1, 2002. The water quality provisions of the MOU can be modified based on the outcome of the EIS, which is scheduled to be completed by Oct. 1, 2001. Thereafter, LCRA agrees not to serve new development from the water line unless the new development complies with the FWS water quality standards. Alternatively, the MOU allows service to new development from the water line if the new development independently obtains all necessary FWS approvals. The water quality standards of the MOU can be replaced by standards developed by local governments in the region served by the water line, subject to approval by FWS.

Project timetable and constraints

Robert Cullick, executive manager of communications and corporate strategy for the LCRA, tells In Fact Daily that bids can't be obtained for pipeline construction until the design is completed. Only "finishing touches" are needed to complete the Phase I design, he says. The LCRA could issue construction bids as early as this summer and complete construction by summer 2001. Only preliminary design has been completed for an internal distribution system to serve retail customers such as the Sunset Canyon subdivision on U.S. Highway 290 between Oak Hill and Dripping Springs, Cullick says. Water problems in that subdivision were a major factor in the getting emergency approval for the water line. Cullick says construction of the wholesale and retail systems might proceed together or separately.

Although in the Austin area the LCRA has been primarily a wholesale provider of water, Cullick said the agency has gotten into more retail sales elsewhere in its service area and he foresees the LCRA being a retail provider to homes in Hays County that are not served by entities such as the Dripping Springs Water Supply Corp. The Hays County Water and Sewer Authority (HCWSA) created by the Hays County Commissioners Court could possibly provide retail service with water furnished wholesale by the LCRA. "All things are possible," Cullick says. "We need to sit down and negotiate with Hays County on a business and utility basis. The first thing we'll explore is a partnership with the HCWSA. Everyone's goal is to get water there as fast and as cheap as possible–although cheap is a relative term in this case."

Before any water system is built, a sufficient number of customers must be signed up to make the system economically feasible, Cullick says. He says the LCRA will launch an effort in the next few weeks to get people to sign up. "We'll see who wants water at the projected rate so they know what they're committing to. Then we'll look at what kind of a system can be constructed to serve those people. Sunset Canyon looks like a pretty sure thing; that community has shown a high degree of interest and a preliminary design has been done by the LCRA." If people in other areas sign up for the water service it will have to be shown that it's economically feasible to serve them. After determining the financial feasibility for a water system, the LCRA will go back to subscribers and tell them what their actual water rates would be. "That determines how big a retail system is feasible at this time," Cullick says. "Eventually we will be able to serve most people who need service."

The preliminary engineering report for Sunset Canyon indicates that the cost of an internal distribution system would range from a low of $1.6 million for a rural system that would not provide fire protection to $2.3 million for a standard fire protection system. Add to that $1.9 million for the water supply system to feed the distribution system and the capital cost of serving Sunset Canyon would range from $3.5 million to $4.2 million, depending on the level of fire protection.

Cullick says that for the Dripping Springs Water Supply Corp. to purchase a backup wholesale water supply, it will likely have to pay a reservation fee that includes compensation for raw water and for treatment and delivery.

Cullick says nine firms that offered to conduct the EIS are being evaluated and a contract to perform the EIS should be on the board agenda for approval in June. None of the firms are from the Austin area, a condition established during meetings with stakeholders who helped determine criteria for the EIS.

For more information about the MOU, visit the LCRA's web site at: http://www.lcra.org/watersupply/boarditems.html

About those absences…Former Planning Commission Member Walter Brown reacted strongly to the May 24 In Fact Daily story on absenteeism by current members of the commission. "I was on the commission for seven years and 10 months and my total number of missed meetings was something like five. I had a very demanding job the entire time, and I was involved in several other community activities. It's not job demands that cause people to miss meetings–it's misplaced priorities. The appointment is a serious, responsible position. No person should accept it without a commitment to be present for every meeting, for its entirety. As you can see, this subject 'rings my bell.' I would urge those individuals who have trouble attending meetings to resign from the commission and pass their places on to more committed people."

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