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Chris Lippe

Monday, March 19, 2001 by

Director of City Water & Wastewater Department

Chris Lippe has spent much of his life in Austin and most of his career working in the city’s Water & Wastewater Department (WWD), but there are aspects of the job that still surprise him.

After spending 16 years in the WWD, Lippe was named permanent director in December. As director, he oversees 900 employees in 4 service centers and 7 treatment plants, as well as 3,000 miles of pipe throughout the city and its extra-territorial jurisdiction. The city has 170,000 connections to 700,000 customers. All those numbers bring a lot of responsibility to bear on Lippe.

“I think there are some things that I have become a lot more aware of since becoming director and one of those things is the need to focus on response time and customer expectations and customer service,” says Lippe. “Our department is in a business where we have a lot of contact with the public. We want to make sure we operate like a business so we can meet the increasing expectations of our customers.” To that end, Lippe has brought in new assistant director Dave Juarez to work with the field operations group to decrease response time.

But Lippe is facing a potentially serious problem very early in his tenure: leaks in a major pipeline the city will depend on for water this summer. The city spent close to $20 million to lay the 72-inch Ullrich pipeline. Increasing capacity is important because the city’s water emergencies last summer were due to a lack of water treatment capacity, not a lack of water, Lippe says. The Ullrich pipeline was intended to relieve that problem, but recent tests have uncovered leaks.

“The question right now is, ‘What’s causing these two leaks?’” Lippe says. “Is it isolated? Or is it something about all the joints on the pipe? Depending on what the problem is, it could prove to be very worrisome to the city, especially if it’s going to mean we have to repair every section of the pipe.”

And repair it soon, before summer begins. An engineer is currently examining the pipe to determine the full scope of the problem. The pipe has now been shut down, with no clear sign of when it will be back in service.

Before he joined the city, Lippe’s jobs included a stint building water quality models for the state. In the WWD, Lippe served first as an engineer and group manager in the wastewater division. He went on to be the assistant director for the engineering program in the utility, overseeing treatment plant construction and pipeline work.

Maintaining water quality is a major issue for Austin. The Planning Commission and Environmental Board carry out much of the planning for water quality, however. (Although Lippe points out that the department has recently purchased 15,000 acres in the Drinking Water Protection Zone to maintain water quality.) The WWD, while concerned, spends much more of its time maintaining capacity.

Meeting regulations—the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act—are at the heart of what the city’s water utility does, Lippe says. Meeting growth is also an issue. When Lippe joined the department there were only two water treatment plants. Bond proposals had failed. Wastewater plants were at capacity and the city was under a moratorium on construction. The need was so great the city took trucks and hauled wastewater from one side of the city to the other to meet local needs.

Today, the city has four wastewater treatment plants, including one that handles only the biosolids from the other three. The plant at Hornsby Bend turns those biosolids—a sort of treated sludge—into Dillo Dirt. The compost, which is combined with yard trimmings, is marketed to local nurseries. “It was one of the first and one of the largest, and it’s really caught on around the country,” Lippe says.

The city’s water treatment capacity has more than tripled since Lippe joined the city 16 years ago. The South Austin regional treatment plant has since come on line and is now being expanded—one indicator of the growth pressure that’s led to higher water rates than most cities in the state.

“We’re trying to balance the pressures we’re having on our capital improvement program with the desire to be affordable and efficient and keep the rates stable,” Lippe says. “We look pretty good when compared to the smaller cities in the area, but we’re on the high side of cities of a similar size.”

Lippe expects two major issues to drive his department’s budget in the coming years. The first will be the extensive relocation of water lines necessary to expand the city’s road system. The other will be the need to rehabilitate existing pipe as it meets the end of its useful age. The city currently is configuring a model that will determine when pipe—much of it laid in the growth spurt of the '50s—needs to be replaced.

Lippe graduated from one of the first classes at Austin’s Reagan High School. He attended the University of Texas. His wife Cindy works in the library in West Barton Creek Elementary School. One son is at the University of Texas, the other is on his way to becoming a Longhorn. Lippe's hobbies include running, lake sports and University of Texas sports.

Bennett Tract moves forward on

Committee's recommendation

Compromise doesn't please everyone

Mark Rogers, project director for the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation, says, “I have followed the ( Bennett Tract) zoning for ten years, like Ahab after the great whale.” Now Rogers sees what may be the end of his quest to keep the East Austin neighborhood friendly to the families who have spent generations in the community.

But Rev. Marvin Griffin, who has been pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church for the past 32 years, says he has also toiled for the past ten years to bring “a sort of economic engine” to the same neighborhood. The Bennett Tract’s boundaries are I-35 on the west, San Marcos St. on the east, 11th St. on the north and the alley between 8th St. and 7th St. on the south. The tract does not include the Historic French Legation, at San Marcos and 8th St.

Last Thursday night, a Planning Commission Committee laid out its recommendations for the tract and took comments from affected landowners and neighborhood organizations. The committee included Commission Chair Betty Baker and Commissioners Lydia Ortiz, Jim Robertson and Ray Vrudhula. Commissioner Sterling Lands, who had initially agreed to serve on the committee, declined to participate. Baker said she had received an email from Lands, but said she did not know why he changed his mind. In general, the four reached consensus on height limitations, floor-to-area ratio (FAR) and land uses in the area.

The committee agreed that building heights on Tracts 1 and 2 (along I-35 just south of 11th St.) should be limited to 200 feet. The staff had recommended a height limit of 220 feet at the corner of East 11th and I-35 and 120 feet on the tract immediately to the south. However, the committee recommended that buildings fronting on I-35 carry a number of other restrictions, including the percentage of the building that may exceed 120 feet. They also recommended that the maximum width of any single building exceeding 120 feet in height be limited to 150 feet. Committee members agreed with the city staff recommendation of 80 feet for Tract 3 (along I-35 just north of 9th St.).

Although a number of landowners and community leaders said the new proposal is a compromise they can live with, there is still a segment of the community that remains unhappy about the quantity and intensity of development that the new zoning could bring.

Fr. Bill Elliott, pastor of the Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, at 1206 East 9th St., said “It’s been a privilege to fight for ten years for the protection of this unique community. It’s always been said that the Guadalupe Neighborhood has opposed development. That’s not true.” Elliott went on to say that the neighborhood only wants to protect its quality of life. “No development, no matter how great, is worth it.” He pleaded with the committee, “Do not allow a 75 foot high wall across I-35.” He also requested that two tracts on San Marcos St. between 9th and 10th Streets be strictly residential.

Responding to Elliott and others, Baker proposed that only the ground floor of one of those tracts be available for non-residential uses. Ortiz, who attends Elliott’s church, also pushed for residential zoning and less intensive uses along San Marcos St.

Linda Connor, representing E. 12th Street business owners, told the committee its recommendations were a good compromise with the staff proposal. “It’s important to bring business to this side of I-35. It compliments what the ARA (Austin Redevelopment Authority) is planning.” Connor said area business owners do not want to wait any longer for new development. Developer Matt Mathias of Riata Development told the committee his company would agree to most of the changes put forth by the committee.

Commissioners also made some smaller changes on the nine various tracts that make up the Bennett Tract. The whole matter will be back before the Planning Commission on Tuesday and is scheduled for City Council consideration on Thursday.

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

Mueller Neighborhoods to meet . . . On Tuesday, the Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition will discuss legislation that may affect their community, as well as a pending Request For Proposal for development of the old airport. The meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. at the Asbury United Methodist Church, 1600 E. 38 ½ St. . . . More traffic news . . . The city expects to reopen 3rd St. between Colorado and San Antonio Streets late Monday, weather permitting . . . The Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District’s Board of Directors will meet at 1 p.m. today at the district office. Rep. Ann Kitchen has been invited to discuss her legislation regarding oil pipeline operations. Directors will also discuss legislation that would allow Hays County Commissioners to regulate some aspects of growth in the county.

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