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SOS to sue LCRA, Feds over water line

Thursday, May 13, 2004 by

Environmental group claims water commitments violate agreement

The Save Our Springs Alliance has sent notice to the Lower Colorado River Authority and two federal agencies of its intention to file suit over what SOS perceives as violations of the Endangered Species Act and federal regulations. In a letter to the LCRA, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the environmental organization says that the LCRA has violated the agreement it made in settling a lawsuit filed by SOS and the Hays County Water Planning Partnership when the LCRA first decided to serve the environmentally sensitive aquifer recharge zone in northern Hays County.

SOS attorneys Bill Bunch and Brad Rockwell wrote the letter claiming the LCRA is not following the guidelines agreed upon for water service from the US Highway 290 line. The LCRA made specific promises concerning the number of homes or LUEs (living unit equivalents) that would be served by the water line in two phases.

“LCRA has issued letters and/or entered into agreements committing itself to provide water from Phase 1 in amount far exceeding” the total number of homes agreed upon under the terms of the settlement agreement, wrote the attorneys. In addition, they say the LCRA has “committed itself to providing water for new developments even though those developments are not in compliance” with the written agreements with FWS and the environmental organization. For that reason, they say the LCRA is violating the Endangered Species Act. One example the cite is the proposed Double L Development.

“To give another example,” they wrote, “LCRA has agreed to provide water to the massive development by Cypress-Hays, Ltd. on 2,724 acres of the most sensitive undeveloped land in the recharge zone even though the landowner has proposed to cover up and seal recharge features, funnel untreated or partially-treated runoff into recharge features, irrigate recharge lands with treated wastewater, and build out at excessive impervious cover levels.”

Building the proposed water line for Hamilton Pool Road, according to SOS, violates the agreements made in the lawsuit settlement. Overall, they charge the violations jeopardize the Barton Springs Salamander. The Corps and the FWS, the lawyers say, failed to develop the appropriate procedures for evaluating projects for water service and that would be a violation of the settlement agreement.

But SOS has signaled a desire to settle the contested matters without further litigation. They say that in addition to notifying the parties of their intent to file a federal suit, they are attempting to initiate a conference with the defendant agencies before filing suit.

In her letter, she concluded that the proposal to allow 1300 homes on approximately 1300 acres would mean that the water line would bring a much higher level of density than if groundwater were used exclusively.

The landowners have asked for a surface-water plan to develop within the watersheds of Little Barton Creek and Rocky Creek, within an area of thin soils and often steep topography, Ross noted. In order to maintain clear base flow in the two creeks there must be “large expansive areas of natural soils and vegetation” in the watershed, Ross wrote. The two creeks feed into Barton Creek and in turn into the Edwards Aquifer.

Ross said she had additional concerns about stream bank erosion resulting in additional sediments and pollutants flowing into the creeks. She also cited concern about pollution caused by inadequate handling of wastewater. There is no central sewer in the area.

Wynn promotes rail to downtown group

Mayor Will Wynn on Wednesday encouraged members of the Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA) to consider the possibility of two separate rail systems funneling commuters into downtown in the near future. He also outlined some of the issues facing the city concerning the redevelopment of Block 21 during his “State of Downtown” address during the DAA’s Issues & Eggs breakfast at the Capitol Marriott.

With Capital Metro’s official announcement this week of a six-month “community outreach effort” concerning commuter rail, Wynn predicted a November vote on the proposal. The proposition most likely to be on the ballot is approval of converting an existing freight rail line that runs from Leander to downtown Austin into a passenger rail line. “If I had to guess—I’m sure I’ll regret saying this publicly—I’d say it would be a $60 million number or something like that,” said Mayor Wynn. “That’s real money, and I take that very seriously. But in the scheme of mass transit plans, that barely shows up . . . as opposed to the $2 billion light rail plan we had in 2000.”

But he also hinted that the transit agency could be convinced to consider another rail service route. “Capital Metro wants to show a lot of fiscal responsibility, show a lot of prudence, show a lot of caution and just ask the voters for this simple phase one. I’m predicting that will be the case, unless we, as downtown stakeholders, analyze the opportunity and ask for more,” he said. “I would suggest to you that over the next month or so we, as a downtown community, need to figure out if we want to ask Capital Metro to consider something bigger and bolder.”

That could include planning for a separate rail proposal being studied by the Austin-San Antonio Intermunicipal Commuter Rail District. Under that plan, passenger trains would run from Georgetown to San Antonio along tracks currently used by Union Pacific freight trains. The U-P line runs down MoPac, and the Mayor says there’s room for a passenger terminal in the vicinity of the Seaholm Power Plant. “There is true traction to get Union Pacific to move the vast majority of their freight service that runs on the U-P line down MoPac,” he said. Should a regional rail system have a Seaholm transit center, Wynn argued, it would be important to find a way to connect it to Austin’s commuter rail terminal downtown, which would be near the Austin Convention Center.

The Mayor also offered a detailed analysis of the redevelopment potential of Block 21 near the CSC building and the new City Hall. The city has put out a Request for Proposals on that block, which includes a provision for some type of civic or cultural use. Wynn predicted that the complicated nature of the RFP, combined with uncertainty over plans for redevelopment at Seaholm, could impact the proposals the city receives for Block 21. “I think we’re going to be somewhat disappointed by the response on the RFP on Block 21,” he said. “I think the development community, when they look at the Seaholm opportunity . . . there’s too many unknowns in that equation,” he said.

Instead of specific proposals for defined uses, Wynn said the responses could be more like those received when the city issues a Request for Qualifications. “We’ll have a number of very significant, credible development organizations coming forward and telling us what they can do,” he said. “But they’re going to look to us to say, ‘here’s the civic combination that we want you to deliver.’ I’m predicting to you that we might be having this discussion again sooner rather than later.”

County to push for tougher rules for landfills

Neighborhoods need more protection, says Kuhl

Travis County intends to offer comments on a proposed Texas Commission of Environmental Quality (TCEQ) revision to site-operating plans (SOP) for municipal landfills.

Environmental Officer John Kuhl admitted that he was caught by surprise when he learned that TCEQ would offer draft rules for review by May 20. The rules would cover the level of detail needed in the submission of landfill site operating plans.

Landfill operators have argued they need greater flexibility in order to operate sites in varying conditions. By putting too many requirements on the landfill operators, they say, permit applications would become too cumbersome.

County environmental officials have long opposed relaxing rules on SOPs. Now the TCEQ will take up the issue, outlining the level of detail needed on site plans, as well as enforceable requirements. The agency’s goal is to provide requirements that are both performance-based and prescriptive-based, with the intention of providing operational flexibility to facilitate day-to-day operations at the landfill.

Kuhl only found out about the rulemaking at a stakeholders meeting on April 19. That gave him a week to submit comments to TCEQ. The draft rule is likely to be circulated next week, followed by possible formal adoption on June 25. “We can get our comments in and still be a part of the process,” Kuhl said. “We wanted to get our comments in by May 20, but if we don’t, they can still be considered.”

Travis County will rely primarily on the work of representatives from Harris County Pollution Control to represent the views of Travis County in the rulemaking process.

The county also has asked for the commission to set higher standards for long-lived landfills that are located adjacent to neighborhoods. Under those circumstances, the TCEQ should ratchet up expectations for standard operating plans, Kuhl told commissioners. The suggestion was based upon Travis County’s own experience with Waste Management, Inc. and Browning Ferris Industries.

Issues to be addressed as part of the effort would include odors, wind-blown debris, fire protection, special waste disposal and endangered species plans. Other issues to be considered include hazard waste detection, site access, alternate daily cover, hours of operation, mud tracking onto area roads and vector control.

Commissioners gave a “thumbs up” to the concept of the submission. Kuhl will report back to Commissioners Court next week.

Slow day . . . Little of controversy appears on today’s Council agenda, although there are some zoning matters that may prove controversial. A hearing on the sale of land at Robert Mueller is scheduled at 6pm. Two vocal opponents of the staff-recommended proposal are trying to drum up additional support for leasing the land. Council Member Betty Dunkerley, who has spent the past 25 years dealing with complex financial matters, said there is no doubt that sale is the best option. “The project as it’s designed now with all the infrastructure and streets, etc. is going to cost $175 million,” she said. Sale of the land will finance that infrastructure and return money to city coffers much more quickly and with greater certainty than attempting to lease the property . . . Mayor to announce fitness council . . . Mayor Will Wynn plans to announce the creation of the Mayor’s Fitness Council at 9:45am today at the LCRA. The mayor’s friend, Paul Carrozza, owner of Run-Tex, will join him to focus on promoting exercise. The mayor has announced a goal of making Austin “the fittest city in the United States” . . . New home loan program. . . Low-to-moderate income Travis County residents who want to buy homes outside the Austin city limits stand to benefit from the first-time homebuyer instant-equity program announced by the county. The program will benefit 60 families who purchase a D.R. Horton or MainStreet home. The program provides zero-interest, forgivable loans for down payments. The down payment on a home is often the most difficult step in the process for first-time homebuyers . . . Not so fast . . . Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir has announced that Pct. 254 will be combined with Pct. 329 after all. Both precincts will vote at Studio 6, 11901 Pavilion Blvd. The change was dictated by the Texas Secretary of State’s Office.

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