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Gardens at Bull Creek a primer on

Tuesday, February 13, 2001 by

Mistakes in erosion management

Golden-cheeked warbler habitat destroyed

By Doug McLeod

Environmental Board Member Joyce Conner said she liked “to think of the Gardens (at Bull Creek) as an outdoor classroom.” Unfortunately, the subject of the current course seems to be trial and error.

Over the last year, more problems than solutions have cropped up at the site. Erosion of a city-built detention facility continues unabated and a dispute over destruction of endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler habitat in the adjoining Balcones Canyonlands Preserve (BCP) has erupted.

About a year ago, the Environmental Board recommended approval of funding for the project, Conner said, as she briefed the board on the current status of the project last week. And a year ago the City Council approved $1 million for construction of the Gardens at Bull Creek Regional Detention Facility. The Watershed Protection Department (WPD) and the Parks and Recreation Department both bought land along Bull Creek from a developer who had planned to build 105 townhomes on the site. Last year, the city built a 700-foot-long, 35-foot-high earthen dam designed, according to Conner, to reduce flooding problems for homes along the creek and at low-water crossings along Spicewood Springs Road.

In attempting to solve serious erosion problems on city land, and to halt severe silt build up in Bull Creek, the city has tried a variety of solutions. Thus far, however, none have succeeded. Conner said runoff from a developing subdivision pours over the curb at the end of a cul-de-sac and ends up scouring a steep hillside. The water flows down the slope with such force it has been eroding away the earthen dam. If the runoff drained into the storm sewer as intended, there would be no problem, she said. At this point, the strategy is to wait for another heavy rainstorm to monitor water flow and the resulting erosion.

“We’re awaiting the next rainstorm,” said George Oswald, director of engineering for the city's WPD, to demonstrate a need for further action. “We don’t need any more siltation in Bull Creek,” he said. “It’s a serious problem and it needs to be addressed” before the subdivision approval is finalized, he added.

Skip Cameron, president of the Bull Creek Foundation, who referred to the Gardens as a “project from hell,” said the storm culvert at the end of the cul-de-sac designed to funnel water into the sewer was blocked by silt fences put in place by the city. Instead of filtering the water before it entered the drain, as intended, the fences blocked the flow of runoff, he said, forcing water up and over the curb and down a steep hillside. The rushing water has been continuously eroding the hillside and dumping silt into Bull Creek, he said, in addition to eroding the dam.

Environmental Board Member Phil Moncada told In Fact Daily that water comes down the steep slope with such force it is “scouring that area and removing all the top soil, creating rills and removing vegetation.” He said an area of at least 30 square feet of soil has been affected. “The contractor has tried to re-vegetate the area but it’s too steep, it keeps washing away.”

Cameron said the city has now removed the silt fences, opened the culvert, and is awaiting the next significant rainstorm to determine if the drain will funnel the runoff adequately.

If not, the design of the culvert, and perhaps the cul-de-sac, will have to be modified, Oswald said, noting the developer and engineers involved would be responsible for bearing the expense.

Cameron said, “There are two (parties) at fault here.” The engineers who planned the subdivision should have known the grade was too steep for runoff to follow a controlled path to the creek, and the city should have known better than to approve the design.

He told In Fact Daily the project was “just a detention system for flooding and erosion,” made necessary by increasing development upstream. It was designed to hold back water that flows from the Balcones Country Club neighborhood, which has been in place for many years, he said, but because of more recent development, flooding has continued to increase.

Other problems with the project have turned it into a recurring headache for the city. “There was a move afoot that we heard about,” Cameron said, by the BCP to take over the Gardens and incorporate it into their preserve as mitigation for damage done by the city. When contractors hired by the city came in with bulldozers to build the detention facility, they got carried away, ripping out a 45-foot swath of trees and Golden-cheeked Warbler habitat on the wrong side of Bull Creek, in the adjacent BCP, he said. “The developers fixed most of the problems that the contractors made,” he noted. But the issue is not dead, he said, stating emphatically that there was no justification for the BCP to take control of the city land. “It flies in the face of reason,” he said, since part of the purpose of the Gardens is to “act as a buffer” so the preserve does not abut homes in the nearby subdivision. BCP will get that land “over my dead body,” he said, noting if mitigation is necessary they will have to find another solution.

Cameron said the city needs to come up with a new system of coordinating projects so mistakes and misunderstandings don’t end up complicating and multiplying problems. In this case, the city is having to spend an extra $400,000 to fix problems caused by bungled maneuvering, he said.

When a number of different contractors working on a project don’t coordinate their efforts, “they do stupid things, and that’s exactly what happened,” Cameron said. The city agreed to throw an extra $400,000 into the project to solve some of the problems, he said, noting that the money was going into reseeding the dam and planting trees. “They planted a whole forest in the pond area,” he said, where there should be grass. The city also put up a lot of fencing. “It’s just incredible,” he said. “It looks like a damn prison farm!”

“It’s a classic case of projects that have multiple facets and multiple (departments involved) and the worst amount of coordination to protect the property,” he said. This situation is “clear testimony…the process we have doesn’t work very well.”

In an effort to improve coordination, Cameron said he organized a meeting last December which brought together city staff from the Parks and Recreation Department, the Watershed Protection Department—including director Mike Heitz—members of the Environmental Board, Parks and Recreation Board, the developer, the neighborhood association president and neighbors. “We came out with some action items and are supposed to have a follow up meeting later this month,” he said.

At the Environmental Board meeting last week, Cameron urged the board to “quit micromanaging…you should be looking at policy and procedure.” He said many of the city’s boards and commissions try to micromanage projects and control the outcome to such an extent they muck up the works. He wants the board and commission members to understand their role is advisory, focusing on policies and procedures, not delving into the intricacies of projects and attempt to supersede the authority of the engineers and contractors who are authorized and qualified to actually implement procedure.

City to step up erosion, pollution

Control inspections for construction

All inspectors to check environmental safeguards

At last week’s City Council meeting, Council Member Daryl Slusher introduced a resolution to increase enforcement of erosion and pollution controls at construction sites. Mike Heitz, director of the Watershed Protection Department (WPD) and soon to officially take control of development review and inspection, told the Council he had already begun to work on the problem.

Heitz said erosion conditions change “daily, if not hourly. In order to do the level of inspection we would really like to see, would take daily inspections by the environmental inspectors.” He noted that even one inspection a week per site would be impractical.

The solution for now, Heitz said, is that all the inspectors, including environmental, electrical, mechanical, plumbing will now start checking for silt abatement, and any other required erosion and pollution controls. If those controls are not in place, Heitz said, there will be no inspection of any kind.

“I think that will definitely improve enforcement,” Slusher said. He asked Heitz to continue to look for enforcement mechanisms and report back in 30 days.

Heitz said, “I think that will make a major change . . . we have (at least) 26 inspections on every project.”

Heitz said he wants every inspector to receive “the proper training and instruction” to inspect pollution and erosion controls. He said the work can be done without incurring additional cost to the city.

©2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Mardi Gras in Austin . . . The Downtown Austin Alliance says that the Austin 2001 celebration of Mardi Gras, beginning Friday, is expected to draw 400,000 to the 6th Street area over a 10-day period. The celebration will begin with a Masquerade Ball at the Inter-Continental Stephen F. Austin Hotel Friday night. The ball will be hosted by “Austin’s key political figures,” according to the DAA. The following Friday, Feb. 23, we are promised a Bacchus of Austin Parade down 6th Street with New Orleans style floats . . . Delayed . . . The long-awaited hearing on a height variance for a condominium project at the site of The Treehouse, 502 Dawson, was delayed again last night at the request of the developer. Attorney Henry Gilmore, representing Living Architecture, asked that the hearing be postponed until March 12, saying the city Parks and Recreation Department had approached the developer to ask about options that would tie Town Lake to Bouldin Creek. He said such options might involve The Treehouse site, at the corner of Barton Springs Road and Dawson.

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