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Environmentalists still concerned about impact on Matagorda Bay

Thursday, February 21, 2002 by

Yesterday, the Lower Colorado River Authority’s Board of Directors approved a precedent-setting agreement to provide water to the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) over the next 80 years. It’s the first time the agency has agreed to provide water outside its “basin,” or normal area of service, and could have a long-term impact on population growth in central Texas, San Antonio, and parts of the Texas coast.

Under the plan, the SAWS will pay the LCRA up front for the opportunity to purchase water in the future. The LCRA will use the money to help fund improvements all along the Colorado River. Those projects, including new off-channel reservoirs, additional conservation measures and facilities to capture floodwater runoff are expected to generate about 330,000 acre-feet of water per year. Some of that water could be sold to San Antonio, which is dependent on the Edwards Aquifer for drinking water, while the rest could be used to meet the needs of the growing population of central Texas. The plan was developed after a state-mandated review showed that without additional water, the LCRA would be forced to divert water from agricultural users downstream to serve urban customers.

“If we are able to do this, then our water shortage problems within this basin will be solved. San Antonio will be able to receive some water to help solve their problem and the Highland Lakes will remain more full than they otherwise would have,” said LCRA General Manager Joe Beal. “This is very much a win-win-win kind of project.” The amount of water generated by the improvements, Beal said, would be significant. “Our board made an historic decision that is equal to, in my mind, the decisions that our very first board made 70 years ago when they decided to create the Highland Lakes system. Generations from now will look back at what this board did and understand that their action caused there to be enough water for this basin for generations to come.”

By capturing more water along the Colorado, especially during flooding, the LCRA predicts it will be able to maintain an appropriate flow all the way downstream to Matagorda County, where the Colorado enters the Gulf of Mexico. Keeping that flow was a key point in winning the endorsement of State Rep. Robert Cook, D-Eagle Lake, who represents Wharton, Fayette, Colorado and Bastrop Counties. “I make my living from agriculture,” said Cook. “The reality of it was, not too far down the road, the agricultural interests were going to get the short end of the stick.” Wharton is the state’s leading rice-producing county, and farmers there also grow cotton, corn and soybeans. While many farmers were originally skeptical of the plan, Cook said the LCRA’s series of public hearings helped smooth over the initial objections. “The LCRA has done a wonderful job of going down there and explaining to the farmers and irrigators that this is going to benefit them.”

The first phase of the project will be a seven-year study to determine if it is technically feasible, mutually beneficial and environmentally sound. Of special concern is the environmental impact on the coastal portion of Matagorda County. The estuaries of Matagorda Bay, where the fresh water of the Colorado meets the salt water of the Gulf of Mexico, provide crucial habitat for a variety of aquatic plants, migratory birds, fish and shellfish. Both sport and commercial fishing are major contributors to the county’s economy.

Environmental groups are concerned that diverting water upstream could alter the balance between salt and fresh water in the estuary and upsetting the delicate balance, thus permanently damaging the ecosystem. Myron Hess with the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) told LCRA board members at their meeting in Bastrop that the plan did not contain appropriate safeguards for the environment.

“Unfortunately, what we have in the contract is sort of a vague reference to environmental protection,” Hess said. “We have confidence in the people at LCRA today trying to protect the bay . . . but we wanted to see it in writing. The entire membership of the board could change in seven years. It’s always better to have clear decision-making criteria up front.” Data from the NWF indicate that during a severe drought, the monthly inflow into the bay would be well below the minimum amount necessary for fish and shrimp populations to survive and repopulate. “Those inflows are critical to the continued productivity of the bay,” Hess said, “and if we look at where we’re headed with population growth, then those flows are going to decrease to a very critical point. The concern is that if we take more water out, it could push it over the brink.”

Item to return to Commissioners' agenda in two weeks

County Commissioners will take an extra couple of weeks to consider how to correct an estimated $1.8 million shortfall community agencies now face in addressing the basic needs of families in crisis.

The Community Action Network (CAN) presented an overview of local needs—a repeat of its presentation at last week’s Council work session—to Commissioners Court this week. The question was not a matter of whether the county would participate in closing the gap, but how the county would find the dollars to cover its portion of the shortfall, Judge Sam Biscoe implied at the end of the presentation by a trio from CAN.

“This is not a two-week delay,” Biscoe told them as the commissioners put the item on the agenda for the first week of March. “This is a two-week search-and-find mission.”

CAN divided the $1.8 million shortfall in thirds among the city, county and community. Already, the city has agreed to issue tax anticipation notes to cover its $600,000 portion. CAN’s goal is a full-scale campaign to pick up another $600,000 from the community.

Travis County, Commissioner Karen Sonleitner pointed out, has already put forward $290,000 in additional funding for the county’s rural health clinic. That, in effect, would leave the county searching for another $310,000 to add to the total.

City Manager Jesus Garza pointed out in at least two recent Council work sessions that the county should be sitting on an extra $1 million in revenue now that the city is picking up the tab of the recently annexed Del Valle health clinic. However, Stephen Williams, executive director of the county’s Health and Human Services Department said there were no savings associated with annexation.

“We have not recognized the savings that were associated with that annexation,” said Williams. “There was never a million dollars.”

Enrollment is up slightly in the county’s Medical Assistance Program . The county has launched a program to enroll undocumented immigrants in the program. Utilization is down. Still, the county had to significantly increase expenditures in the current fiscal year budget, Williams said. The county’s health department had to add another $700,000 in pharmaceutical expenses and $100,000 in additional line item expenditures.

The Planning and Budget Office encouraged the health department to put $368,000 in savings last year into a savings account for the department. Williams had to admit he was glad he listened to PBO—rather than spending the money on new services—because the county has now pulled $290,000 from that account to cover clinic cost overruns.

“I’m glad they won on that because they created the reserve and we actually needed it,” Williams told the court during a morning presentation on Tuesday.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t take into account that Medicaid may pull $100,000 in funding to the county, saying it overpaid Travis County for medical services. Budgets for Federally Qualified Health Clinics and housing services could also fall short this year, possibly to the tune of $350,000. Biscoe said he wanted answers on why the county had fallen so short on its budget estimates this year.

Even as the county commissioners appeared to agree on particulars in underwriting the funding shortfall, Commissioner Margaret Gomez expressed some anger that the county had done so little to consolidate county services so that families would not have to bounce back and forth among service providers.

A family in crisis, Gomez said, should not be forced to go all over the county, trying to scrape up assistance from various non-profit agencies. Eileen Oldag of Caritas assured Gomez that streamlining assistance was a goal of non-profit providers. Not only is it more dignified for the client, it is also more efficient for the provider.

Funding, traffic integration details still pending

Capital Metro officials describe HOV lanes on MoPac as “a work in progress,” with plenty of questions still unanswered about the proposed $28 million project.

A split CAMPO (Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization) board agreed last week to recommend a study of High-Occupancy Vehicle lanes between US 290 and Downtown Austin. Rob Smith, Director of Strategic Planning and Development at Capital Metro, presented the Capital Metro board of directors with an overview of the progress to date on HOV lanes at yesterday’s work session.

The concept of HOV lanes in the MoPac corridor is nothing new, Smith said. A task force has studied the concept of a comprehensive HOV lane system in the Austin area for almost two years. What is new is the concern that the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) will be unable to fund large-scale improvements to MoPac in the near future and the need to address short-term requirements of the corridor in a quick and cost effective manner.

Executive Director Michael Aulick of CAMPO told commissioners that a five- to seven-year roll out of the HOV lanes would be a good intermediate step while the region waits for funding on MoPac improvements.

“Because of TxDOT funding shortfalls, we don’t have the money to advance the full project at this time,” Aulick said. “Something needs to be done while we’re waiting for the big project to happen, and this can be done in a short period of time.”

The project would be a single reversible HOV lane between US 290 and Lake Austin Boulevard that would also provide direct access to downtown, Smith said. The HOV lane would require no additional right-of-way and could be easily integrated into future projects. Transportation experts estimate that the HOV lane could save drivers between 8 and 10 minutes during peak travel time, which Smith called significant.

Smith said a feasibility study still must be done to answer the following questions:

• How will traffic planners address additional intersection congestion, most likely along Fifth Street into downtown?

• Would the time gained on MoPac be lost in that additional congestion?

• How will park-and-ride lots be integrated into the southern end of the route?

• How much will the project actually cost?

• Who will end up paying for it?

The severity of traffic on MoPac will only increase in coming years, Smith said. Speeds on MoPac during rush hour hover between 17 and 25 miles per hour. In 1995, 130,000 vehicles per day used the road. By 2025, the estimate increases to 256,300 cars per day. Congestion has gotten so bad, Smith said, that many Cap Metro buses now use Lamar Boulevard and South First rather than MoPac in order to keep to their route schedules.

The impact of the HOV lane—at a tentative price tag of $28 million—may appear to be modest. Representatives from TxDOT estimate that the HOV lane would only serve between 750 and 800 vehicles per hour. About 300 of those vehicles each hour would be diverted to downtown. Transportation officials admit they still have no answers on how the lanes would hook, literally, into downtown traffic patterns.

Transportation officials also continue to study east-west access through the area. Currently, the Cesar Chavez, Fifth Street and Sixth Street arterials off MoPac and the Manor, Red River and Airport exits off Interstate 35 are being targeted for improved traffic flow.

Smith said the staffs of Capital Metro, the City of Austin and the Texas Department of Transportation would meet in the coming weeks to outline the scope of the feasibility study.

Dunkerley announcing today . . . Newly retired Assistant City Manager Betty Dunkerley will be making her announcement for a run at the City Council at 10am this morning at Threadgill’s on Barton Springs Road. Dunkerley has said she would not run against either Council Member Daryl Slusher or Jackie Goodman if they are on the ballot. But she won’t make a decision on which seat to file for until those Council members have either filed signatures or made other choices . . . New signature committee gathering steam . . . Former Mayor Bruce Todd said Wednesday he has spent the past 10 days getting Citizens for Voter Choice ready to gather signatures for Goodman and Slusher. Signature collectors will begin to canvass neighborhoods on Saturday, Todd said. Todd has hired Jodi Eldridge to direct the effort and another person to coordinate signature collectors. “We’re going to be walking every Saturday and Sunday afternoon and every evening from 6-8 pm,” he said. “The main challenge we have is to get workers . . . Our goal is 10,000 signatures” . . . Maxey party to benefit Rodriguez. . . Retiring State Rep. Glen Maxey is turning 50 and he’s having a celebration to benefit the Eddie Rodriguez, one of the most prominent candidates of the six seeking the Democratic nomination to replace Maxey. Rodriguez has been Maxey’s chief of staff and Executive Director of the Travis County Democratic Party. The party is tonight from 5:00-7:00pm at Miguel’s La Bodega, 415 Colorado . . . Hyde Park garage case today . . . A federal magistrate will hear the Hyde Park Baptist Church’s request for a summary judgment in its suit against the City of Austin for not allowing the church to erect a five-story parking garage on its property in Hyde Park.

© 2002 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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