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Mueller commission, neighbors distressed

Monday, October 9, 2000 by

About proposed design of emergency center

Proposal does not conform to ROMA plan, leaders say

Not a spadeful of dirt has been turned, but commissioners charged with the implementation of the Mueller Redevelopment Plan have already expressed strong reservations about the first construction on the site.

ROMA Design Group’s 20-year master plan for the former 711-acre Mueller Airport site is ambitious. It includes: neighborhoods with pedestrian-friendly streets, soccer fields and other athletic facilities, an elementary school, a Town Center with a lake surrounded by retail and office space, an employment center, and sound and production stages for the Austin Film Society.

But what Mueller Redevelopment Implementation Commission (MRIC) members and area neighbors are focussing on now is the design and location of the city-county emergency communications facility. The multi-jurisdictional emergency communications center, which would combine dispatch agencies across Travis County, is planned for a spot at the northeast edge of the Mueller property. But neighborhood groups that have seen schematics for the building are distressed by the design.

The Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition objects to plan for the proposed public facility, said Jim Walker, the group’s president. Fellow MRIC commissioners echoed many of those concerns: the poor placement of the building in relationship to the surrounding streets; the large surface parking lot; and a lack of cohesiveness between the communications center and the surrounding residential area.

Commissioner Matt Moore, a civil engineer, said that the project’s plans couldn’t be any more suburban in nature and that was no compliment. Consultant Jim Adams of ROMA admitted the project had been placed on the periphery of the Mueller site because it did not have “synergy with the other components.” Moore said he feared the communications center would send the wrong message.

“It’s like the camel’s nose under the tent,” Moore said. “There’s going to be an example out there that we didn’t even follow our own agenda, what’s basically on that plan.”

Walker agreed that the bar needs to be set high for the communications center project because it could easily set a precedent. The building technically is exempted from the ROMA master plan, but the neighborhood is still eager to see it conform to the urban ideals of the ROMA design guidelines, Walker said. Those standards are called TNDs, for traditional neighborhood designs.

“No one in the Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition has said that they shouldn’t be at Mueller. We don’t have an issue with the location,” said Walker. “We’re not happy with how they’re treating the site that they have with respect to the ROMA master plan.”

“Regardless of what anybody says or thinks, that is a precedent-setting building. To endorse it is to go against everything in the master plan,” he said. “We’re going to have to protest (the design) on principle. Precedent is the number one issue.” Walker said Sunday that emergency response team members knew about the design concepts in April, but are only now trying to meet with the city’s urban design staff.

Walker said the commission and neighborhood leaders understand that the emergency center has special design requirements because it must be built to withstand a tornado and other unusual events.

Former City Council Member Gus Garcia, who also sits on the commission, cautioned that the state still has the potential for a land grab at Mueller during the next legislative session. Walker said he wanted the ROMA plan to be so firmly in place that the state wouldn’t consider taking a chunk of the property. At one point, the General Services Commission had an option to buy 282 acres of the former airfield. Such a move would likely torpedo the economic viability of the project, Walker said.

The city intends to put ROMA back under contract to continue implementation of the 20-year plan. It calls for a master developer to oversee the currently projected three-phase development of the property. The first five-year phase would be to build the employment center on the western side near I-35, and the neighborhoods on the southeast quadrant. That would be followed in the next five years by the development of the signature Town Center off Airport Boulevard across from Patterson Park. The final seven years would be to develop the property on 51st Street where the National Guard facility currently sits. The National Guard holds a lease on its space until 2013.

City staffers are trying to schedule a meeting with representatives of the emergency communications center at the commission’s meeting on Oct. 18. Walker is optimistic, saying there’s still time to change the design plans on the center. The Mueller Redevelopment Implementation Commission is a nine-member board. Each member of the board is appointed to a two-year term.

Experts show groundwater conferees

The details of dye tracing in aquifer

Final injection of four-year BSEACD study

By Doug McLeod

About fifty people clustered around the sinkhole in the rain, watching the hydrogeologist pour gallon after gallon of fuchsia-colored dye into the rocky opening. When all the organic tracer dye had been dumped, he flushed it down into the Edwards Aquifer with 10,000 gallons of water from a fire hose that snaked across a few acres of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

The destination of the tracer dye: Barton Springs. Travel time: “One or two days to ten days would be my guess,” said hydrogeologist Nico Hauwert, who has been working on this project for almost four years. He said Friday’s tracer injection was “the nineteenth trace we’re doing in this study. This is the last one in the study.”

The demonstration was part of a field trip that closed a two-day conference entitled, “ Groundwater District: Roadmap for Local Control.” Hosted by the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District (BSEACD) and the Texas Alliance of Groundwater Districts, the conference, held on the Univeristy of Texas campus, featured such notable speakers as Texas Sen. Buster Brown and Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht.

The purpose of the conference was to get members of water districts together “to discuss upcoming legislation and to get consensus on topics of concern in ground water districts,” said Clover Clamons, an event coordinator and water resources planner with the BSEACD. She said new water districts are set to be ratified at the next session of the Legislature, so the conference was created “to get everybody together to discuss the future of districts and how to enforce and enact rules for groundwater” regulation.

The BSEACD has been working on the dye-trace study since 1996. The final tracer injection on Friday means the project, funded by grants from the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, will soon be completed. “We’re shooting for the end of the year,” said Clamons, noting that the official report to the EPA may not actually be delivered until early 2001.

The study would not have been possible without the grants, she said. “It’s allowed us to take a look into what goes on below the ground. There’s no easy way to do that. It gives us a picture of how quickly things move in the aquifer and how quickly we could be affected by a catastrophic event”—like a pipeline or tanker truck spill.

In some aquifers, water travel time can be months or years, she said. “But in our karst aquifer the travel time is days. Our longest trace took 18 days…the ones that were farthest away took only two weeks.”

Twelve pounds of dense, powdered dye were poured into Recharge Sink, a sinkhole at the wildflower center, said Hauwert, a former senior hydrogeologist for the BSEACD, who now works for the district on a contractual basis. It’s important for the dye to go at least 200 feet down during the injection, he said, so flushing 10,000 gallons of water down behind it is standard practice.

“The dyes we use are really safe to use, but you want to be careful,” he said, pointing out that 45,000 people use water from the Barton Springs flow path. And the district wouldn’t want to take a chance on adversely affecting the Barton Springs Salamander, so it is crucial to be prudent, he said.

On occasion, tracer dye has showed up in private wells. Hauwert said that always meant an instant $800 expense for the district to buy a filter for the private system and immediately provide bottled water. He said one well showed color from dye for a year. The dye is not considered toxic, but tinted water in a private well isn’t acceptable.

Wells are also used as injection sites, Hauwert said, noting tracer dye traveled from one well in southwest Austin to Barton Springs in 30 hours. Groundwater in some Edwards Aquifer flow paths moves as fast as five to eight miles a day, he added.

Hauwert introduced Tom Aley of Ozark Underground Laboratories as “the grandfather of tracing.” Aley, who’s been working with dye tracers for 40 years, said, “I prefer to think of myself as the illegitimate son of tracing.” Craig Smith, president of the BSEACD, said Aley is the world’s foremost expert on groundwater tracing.

“Dye tracing is not a very commonly used practice,” he said. “I’ve been professionally involved in about 70 percent” of what’s been done. “Not many people do it.”

“A fellow once described it as deceptively simple…some aquifers are very simple, anyone can do it—the Edwards Aquifer is not one of those. There are many concerns and constraints that are needed, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a useful tool.” Sometimes, however, the dye becomes too diluted to be noticeable in water samples. In these cases, charcoal packets are used to catch trace amounts of dye in water funneled through a receptor point.

Eighty sampling stations were used in this study, but in some studies Aley has used as many as 200.

The field trip moved from the wildflower center to a nearby nature preserve acquired by the city about a year ago. Blowing Sink Cave Preserve is not open to the public, said caretaker and biologist Mark Sanders with the Austin Parks and Recreation Department. But it has a deep and elaborate cave system that has benefited the study.

Hauwert said Blowing Sink Cave is 240 feet deep. “Had we not been able to get down that deep into the aquifer, we probably would have missed some important information.” While walking through the new preserve, he pointed out Pipeline Sink, an obvious sinkhole that provides drainage into the aquifer from the preserve area. This rocky feature is aptly named as three major pipelines traverse this tract of land.

In 1986, a nearby section of the Shell pipeline leaked 20,000 barrels of crude oil into the aquifer. Fumes from the crude oil were detected inside the aquifer miles from the accident site, he said. Tracer dye injected into the aquifer from this area traveled the seven miles to Barton Springs in one to two days.

In 1981, 2,500 local residents were evacuated when contractors broke the Phillips liquid natural gas pipeline, Hauwert said. The third pipeline running through the drainage area of Pipeline Sink is the 50-year-old Longhorn Pipeline.

The Longhorn Pipeline has had two spills in the area. In 1987, workers building the MoPac Expressway ruptured an Exxon pipeline, spilling crude oil. Hauwert said no one ever made an assessment of how much oil was spilled or how deep it went into the ground. Exxon and a third-party contractor took responsibility for a 1979 spill near Westgate Boulevard and Davis Lane, he said. The oil was pumped up and houses were soon built over the site. But residual oil remained under the homes and eventually dissolved plumbing seals, causing residents to complain about petroleum fumes up to 15 years later. Consultants hired by Exxon verified the presence of residual petroleum in the utility lines as late as 1993 or 1994, Hauwert said.

©2000 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Our condolences . . .to Brigid Shea, who lost her mother last week. Gertrude Mary Shea would have been 88 on November 20. She joined the American Red Cross during World War II and served as a hospital social worker at Mitchel Field, Long Island and later in Hospital service in Manila, Philippine Islands and at the 249th General Hospital at Fort Richardson, Alaska. Shea and her family have gone to Grand Forks ND for the funeral, which will be at the Greg Norman Funeral Home on Tuesday. . . Small crowd laughs a lot. . .Journalists billed this year’s roast of Texas politicians as a “Major League Gridiron Show.” There was a lot of use of the a-word, in honor of our governor. But our personal favorite was the full-page ad in the program, which reads: “The Texas AFL-CIO deeply resents the intrusion of New York Times reporter Adam Clymer on our sacred turf of 45 years standing. The term #%&#@$tm is a trademark that, by longstanding convention, is to be applied by Texas governors only to our organization. As every Big Time person in the Lone Star State knows, the appropriate gubernatorial honorific for the media is $*%@#. We hope and expect the Bush-Cheney campaign will observe this useful distinction in the future.” Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, Council Member Beverly Griffith and Griffith’s husband Balie were among the smaller-than-usual crowd at the Austin Music Hall. . . Don’t choose West Avenue. . .West Avenue at 15th and 16th Streets is scheduled to be closed from 9 a.m. today through next Sunday. The city says access will be maintained for businesses and homes in that block. The closure is part of utility work on 15th Street.. . It’s not really Columbus Day. . . City and LCRA employees do not have the day off. But the Post Office is closed, along with banks and a number of state agencies.

© 2000 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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