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Water proposals worry

Tuesday, April 10, 2001 by

SB 2 lacks language to protect waterways

Environmentalists continue to voice concern over the effect SB 2—this year’s omnibus water bill—may have on the state’s rivers, bays and estuaries. In addition, the president of the board of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District (BSEACD) is still watching the bill that may force the district to operate in a new and different way.

Myron Hess of the National Wildlife Federation told In Fact Daily, “One of our big concerns with the bill is that in the process the need for water for environmental flows has not been considered.” He said he is worried that the legislation does not “make sure that there is enough water left in place to take care of healthy rivers, basins or estuaries.”

Hess said Senator Buster Brown, the bill’s author, had added language to include protection of minimal flows, but that language was taken out before the bill was voted out of committee last week. Brown is chair of the Natural Resources Committee, which reported favorably on the bill and its numerous amendments. The portions of the bill that environmentalists favored would have directed the Water Development Board and Texas Parks and Wildlife to “give specific guidance for determining environmental flow needs,” Hess said.

Craig Smith, President of the BSEACD, said Brown brought in “a pretty wide-ranging set of amendments and some of those addressed the local control issues that were of concern about the original bill.” One of those amendments, Smith said, addresses the district’s chief concern—the fee for transport of water outside the district. Initially, SB2 would have required the district to reduce its fee from 31 cents to 8 cents per gallon. It costs BSEACD about 31 cents per gallon to recharge the aquifer and transport water outside the district.

Smith is still worried about the fact that districts must treat all users the same, whether they reside in the district or somewhere else. Like other groundwater districts, BSEACD is concerned about big cities buying up water that could be used locally. “It could result in Hays County residents coming into competition with people in large metropolitan areas for the water under their feet. There will be a bidding situation for the water from the aquifer.” He said that ownership rights to water on one’s own property is not specifically defined by law, unlike oil.

In the Southern Edwards Aquifer District legislation has defined capacity and the aquifer authority has issued permanent permits with limitations on pumpage. “That’s getting very close to defining a property right in groundwater. We’re moving in that direction, but even before we get there the marketeers want to come in there and seize an opportunity to acquire rights in groundwater that would be made significantly more marketable under this bill.”

Senator Teel Bivins (R-Amarillo) added an amendment to the bill last week which prohibits groundwater districts from acquiring rights in their own groundwater, Smith said. “The Bivins amendment is wrong-headed. It does not further the result of conserving the resource,” he added.

Smith said the State has issued rules for spacing and proration of oil wells, but that has not been done for groundwater. Surface water has been allocated based on historic usage. “This bill would free up the marketing of groundwater before there had been a definition of who owned the water—sort of like the law of the open range, when you owned as many cows as you could round up and brand.”

In a related matter, the Save Our Springs Alliance (SOSA) has requested that the City Council oppose “any legislation that would create or authorize a special district of any kind in the Barton Springs zone at Spillar Ranch or any other location.” In a letter faxed to Council offices on Monday, Bill Bunch, executive director of SOSA, asked that each member of the Council request that Rep. Rick Green (R-Hays Co.) withdraw HB 3644. Bunch’s letter says, “The only responsible course of action is to inform Representative Green that the agreement was clearly understood to mean that no legislative involvement in the subject land would be contemplated and secondly, to the extent this might change requires the city and the Bradley parties to reach an agreement between themselves first before engaging in the legislative process.”

Green has invited Council Members and members of city staff to attend a meeting today to work on a version of the bill that would be acceptable to all. Mayor Kirk Watson is out of town. Assistants to various Council Members said staff members would likely be attending the meeting.

Board of Adjustment denies

Variance for Hyde Park home

Neighborhood opponents win

Members of the Board of Adjustment voted 4-1 to deny a side-street setback variance for a home addition project in Hyde Park last night. The owner, Brett Wooldridge, had received a building permit and had gone before the Historic Landmark Commission last November with the plans for the addition. But he did not return and submit final construction plans, which would have triggered a variance hearing prior to the start of construction rather than in the middle of it.

“I don’t know how anybody off the street walks in down here sometimes and can figure out the labyrinth you have to go through,” consultant Sarah Crocker said in explaining her client’s efforts to comply with city codes. Work on the addition and remodeling of the home at 4114 Avenue A was red-tagged by city inspectors when they discovered it encroached on the 15-foot required setback zone. She described the requested encroachment into the setback zone as “not uncommon” in Hyde Park, and cited the unusual shape of the lot as one of the reasons she believed the variance should be approved.

But a representative of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association opposed the measure. Stan Kozinski argued that the failure of the property owner to comply with city codes should not be rewarded with a variance. “We have illegal construction going on all over Hyde Park,” Kozinski said. “Our problem with this and other projects has been . . . people coming in and saying ‘we didn’t know, we went down there, the city gave us a permit.’ A lot of us who are contractors work hard to jump through these hoops to do it right,” Kozinski said. “We can’t recommend that people flout the law and then ask other people to follow the zoning.”

Attorney Richard Suttle watched Tuesday night’s dialogue, while waiting for another item. Suttle is one of the attorneys representing the Hyde Park Baptist Church in its lawsuit against the City of Austin over the City ’Council's refusal to allow the church to build a parking garage (see In Fact Daily, April 5, 2001). He did not comment during the setback hearing for the Avenue A property. Board Vice Chair Betty Edgemond voted against the motion to deny the variance, with Chair Herman Thun, Frank Fuentes, Barbara Aybar and Leane Heldenfels voting for it.

Celebrity fence OK'd

Star power didn’t win actor Adrian Pasdar or his wife Natalie Maines any special treatment during the Board of Adjustment meeting. Pasdar was represented by Jim Bennett in an effort to secure a variance for a privacy fence around the couple’s home in west Austin. Board Member Frank Fuentes apparently wasn’t familiar with the actor’s work in the NBC/PAX-TV series “Mysterious Ways”, and asked, “Are you a movie star?” Pasdar’s replied, “I'm just an actor, sir.” Pasdar, Maines, and their infant son all waited through several other public hearings before their request was heard. While Bennett and Pasdar both cited the support of the neighborhood for the fence and were able to provide detailed information about the topography of the neighborhood and nearby homes, Pasdar’s tales of the tabloid press convinced board members the couple had a hardship deserving of a variance. “We have had a little bit of traffic with tabloid magazines coming by during my wife's pregnancy,” he said. Pasdar's wife, Natalie Maines, singer with the best-selling country music group The Dixie Chicks, gave birth to the couple's first child in March. After reassurances that the higher-than-usual fence (up to ten feet tall in some spots) would be removed if the property were ever sold, the board approved the variance by a vote of 4-1, with Vice Chair Betty Edgemond opposed.

Editorial Changes . . . Michael King has taken over from Lou Dubose as Politics Editor of the Austin Chronicle. Dubose, who co-authored a popular book about George W. before he was President, is working on a new book about tobacco litigation. A Chronicle staffer said Dubose wanted more time to devote to the book. King came to the Chronicle from the Texas Observer, as did Dubose . . . Airport Honors . . . John Almond, director of facilities and operations at Austin Bergstrom-International Airport, has been invited by the National Academy of Sciences to address its aviation gridlock series. Almond will talk about challenges to airport development, including environmental, community and financial issues. ABIA has been recognized by the Texas Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers for making a significant contribution to society and to the progress of civil engineering . . . Champion Sisters return . . . Josie Champion and her two sisters will attempt tonight to win approval from the Planning Commission for a zoning change on their land between 5900 – 6500 FM 2222. City staff is recommending approval . . . Mueller RFQ released . . . The long-awaited Request for Qualifications to select a Master Developer for the former airport was released Monday. The Commission can move on to other matters. Meanwhile, legislation which could threaten its status is still pending.

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