Monday, February 3, 2003 by

The City of Austin is making better-than-expected progress on the Environmental Protection Agency’s administrative order to repair chronic leaks in the city’s wastewater infrastructure by the 2007 deadline.

The catalyst for the order was a 1998 spill that dumped sewage into Brushy Creek, leaving more than 1,600 people sick. As a consequence, the EPA mandated that the city curtail the estimated 20 to 25 spills a week that occur in Austin, or face stiff penalties. The city’s response was to embark on a lengthy and painstaking process of assessing the need for line replacement, line repair or supplemental lines in the Cross-Town, Govalle and Onion Creek basins.

Last week’s update to the Environmental Board showed that the city is progressing steadily toward its goal of rectifying problems in 2,300 miles of pipeline by the EPA’s deadline. A total of 23 individual projects have been identified in the Cross-Town basin to the north, and 10 of those projects can be elevated out of streambeds. That means a third of the city has been assessed and critical projects are now under design.

For some projects, it will mean replacing wastewater lines. For others, it will simply mean rebuilding or repair.

“With the amount of money it would take, it’s not practical to move every pipeline,” said Gopal Guthikonda, the manager of the Austin Clean Water Program. “What we have to do, over time, is to look at each and every pipeline, determine its impact on the creek, and see if we can take them out. We also have to consider the constraints we have under the city’s Clean Water ordinance.”

He told In Fact Daily the EPA mandate does not specify logistics of the project; it just directs the City to “eliminate sanitary sewer overflows.” Austin is one of many cities around the country hit with such a mandate, all required to come into compliance by an EPA-imposed deadline.

The City Council passed the Clean Water ordinance last June. The assessment of wastewater lines in each of the three basins must be done by 2005 and construction completed by 2007. It is a massive process for Guthikonda’s team of 10 engineers in the Collection Services Division of the Water & Wastewater Utility, and has meant bringing a broad team of consultants on board to assist in the process.

Bill Moriarty, an outside consultant hired to oversee the Clean Water team, estimates that the team will address 40 percent of the entire water and wastewater system. Guthikonda predicts that finishing the entire project by the EPA deadline will cost in the range of $150 million.

Once construction is in high gear, the water and wastewater construction will easily be the biggest simultaneous construction project ever completed by the city, says former Council Member Brigid Shea, who serves as an environmental policy consultant on the Clean Water project.

One of the main achievements of the process has been to bring together the Watershed Protection Department and the Water & Wastewater Department. Shea said there was plenty of trepidation in the early stages of the project. The two departments have different goals and different perspectives.

Watershed Protection feared the utility staff would be insensitive to environmental issues and tear up environmentally sensitive streambeds, Shea said. The utility feared Watershed Protection would not be willing to move swiftly through the process. Instead, both sides were “pleasantly surprised” to find common ground in the project, she said.

“Some of that’s probably because we’re in such a big hurry,” Moriarty admitted. “It made all of us jump right in and get to work. It wasn’t that we were mean about it, but we had to get going. Each day the city misses the deadline for these projects is going to be $27,500.”

Paying for those projects will come from revenue bonds, Guthikonda said. The city also could choose to impose a fee on monthly water and wastewater bills, he said, although the early thinking is that the payment of the bonds could done through the rate increase alone.

Council flood plain variance; Fairview Park house zoned historic

The City Council gave final approval last week to St. David’s Hospital’s expansion plan, which will eliminate a grove of large oak trees on the property. Neighbors had initially objected to the loss of trees and also complained about noise generated by ambulances idling in front of the hospital’s emergency room.

However, attorney John Joseph of Minter Joseph & Thornhill was able to convince neighbors to support the plan after offering them restrictive covenants. The private covenants promise the hospital will erect sound barriers to limit noise that has bothered residents of the Hancock Condominiums. In addition, Columbia St. David’s Healthcare promised to construct a pedestrian crosswalk at 30th Street and Red River and to plant a number of trees in East Woods Park to mitigate the loss.

Christian Cobaugh, a spokesman for the Hancock Neighborhood Association and the condominiums, thanked St. David’s and Joseph for working with them to arrive at a solution to the noise problem. He added that it was unfortunate that the hospital could not simply put electrical plugs into ambulance bays so that the vehicles could be turned off while at the hospital. EMS had rejected that solution. Joseph said the plugs would be installed in case they could be used in the future.

Council Member Daryl Slusher asked the City Manager to look into the problem. She agreed to do so, saying that about a quarter of the fleet uses back-up generators, but that EMS had experienced some problems with the newest technology. She said the city is always looking for ways to operate more efficiently. She said the city would continue exploring ways to use the electrical outlets.

In an earlier presentation, Columbia St. David’s representatives said they would relocate a few of the larger trees, but that maintaining the proposed configuration—which requires cutting down the trees—is critical to meet the specific needs of emergency and surgical services, the primary reason for the expansion.

Also last week, the City Council granted Lake Austin homeowners Ed and Gale Thomas a variance from floodplain restrictions that will allow them to keep a playroom constructed above their boat dock. Consultant Sarah Crocker said the room—about 440 square feet—does not encroach into the water. The structure has been in place since October 1999, when a city inspector approved it. But the structure has windows and is therefore not the screened in porch pictured in Thomas’ original site plan. The Environmental Board voted last fall to recommend against granting the variance. Staff told the board that the room was not eligible because it would not meet the hardship requirement. (See In Fact Daily, Oct. 10, 2002 .)

However, the Zoning and Platting Commission recommended the variance and Mike Heitz, director of the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department, told the Council that the room poses no danger to life or property and would not be a hazard during flood conditions.

The Council approved the variance on a vote of 6-1, with Mayor Gus Garcia voting no. He said he was concerned about flood insurance rates going up as a result of granting such variances. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman commented that there is a lot of “misunderstood language” in the portion of city regulations relating to living quarters over water and screened porches. She said it would be a good time to review those regulations “to be more clear and understandable and perhaps a little tighter inspection . . . so that nobody goes too far off track by accident.”

Members of the Fairview Park Neighborhood, an area with many historic residences, asked the Council to grant historic zoning to a home at 1312 Newning, over the objections of the owner. Ray Bier wanted to tear down the house to make way for condominiums, which his neighbors staunchly opposed. Council Member Will Wynn made a motion to zone the property MF-3-H (multi-family, historic). However, Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman made a substitute motion to maintain the single-family property zoning with a historic designation. Her motion prevailed, with only Wynn dissenting.

© 2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Tonight’s meetings . . . The Brackenridge Hospital Oversight Council is scheduled to meet at City Hall at 6pm. It could be a lively meeting, with topics ranging from a report on Seton’s plans for a new children’s hospital to discussion of creating a board for the 5th floor hospital within a hospital . . . The Design Commission will talk about plans for the Whole Foods at 6th and Lamar. They will also review the design for the Mexican-American Cultural Center, as well as several eastside projects . . . Party for Alvarez tonight . . . Council Member Raul Alvarez kicks off the campaign party season with a fundraiser tonight. The shindig at Nuevo Leon, 1501 E.6th Street, runs from 5:30 to7:30pm. Alvarez has no announced opposition so far . . . MoPac noise an issue . . . Council Member Will Wynn said he and Council Member Betty Dunkerley would be asking City Manager Toby Futrell next week to look at the status of an old TxDOT order relating to sound barriers along MoPac north of Town Lake. He said they would also be asking Futrell to investigate the cost of such a project . . . Iraq resolution pending . . . Council Member Daryl Slusher is placing a resolution on this week’s agenda asking the US not to launch a unilateral attack. “We would join some 50 other cities around the nation and many people around the world in taking that position,” Slusher said. While the Council member said he had previously avoided involving the city in national issues, he said the debate over a war on Iraq was a special case. “It could affect Austin and all other cities dramatically, both in human and financial terms. I know many of our citizens would like to have the Council add their voice to the international debate that’s going on” . . . Hold those carp . . . A state district judge on Friday approved a two-week Temporary Restraining Order preventing the city from stocking Lake Austin with 1600 grass-eating carp. The city had hoped the fish would help deal with the spread of hydrilla. They’ll be kept in storage pending the results of a full hearing on the case on February 14 . . . Towns approve incorporation . . . Webberville residents approved incorporation on Saturday, as did voters in Volente . . . Travis County officials hold a rededication ceremony for the Ned Granger Building today at 12:00 noon. They’ll be officially unveiling the new sign on what used to be called the Stokes Building . . . More water samples to be tested . . . Scientists from the University of Texas Environmental Health and Safety office will take sediment samples from Waller Creek today in response to the recent series of articles in the Austin American-Statesman. Those samples will be sent to a certified lab to test for PAHs and other chemicals . . . On a lighter note . . . The Merry Wives of Windsor, perhaps Shakespeare’s best comic effort, plays Thursday through Sunday nights until Feb. 16 at the Austin Playhouse, 3601 S. Congress. The play, presented with 1950s styling, is a joint effort by the theater and the Austin Shakespeare Festival. For more information, call 476-0084.

© 2003 In Fact News,

Inc. All rights reserved.

‹ Return to Today's Headlines

  Read latest Whispers ›

Do you like this story?

There are so many important stories we don't get to write. As a nonprofit journalism source, every contributed dollar helps us provide you more coverage. Do your part by joining our subscribers in supporting our reporters' work.

Back to Top