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Aquifer board passes new water use rule

Friday, September 10, 2004 by

Drought could mean curtailment for some users

New rules adopted by the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District board create a new class of permit for new customers that could curtail their service during times of moderate or severe drought. The new rules govern permits for pumping water from the aquifer.

While existing customers will be granted Historic Use Status, and will still be allowed to follow their existing contingency plans in the event of a drought, new customers will receive a Conditional Production Permit. When the BSEACD declares a Stage 2 or Stage 3 drought, the Board will have the option to reduce the amount of water those new users can pump by either 20 or 30 percent. During the most severe drought conditions, the board can cut off service entirely to new customers as a last resort. "When you move into a severe drought condition, in all likelihood there will not be enough available water to meet the permitted demand," BSEACD scientist Timothy Riley told the board.

The goal of the new permitting system is to protect the Barton Springs portion of the Edwards Aquifer from over-pumping during a drought, which could hurt the water quality of the springs or, in a record-setting drought, interrupt their flow. Research done for the BSEACD's Groundwater Availability Model shows the sustainable yield for the Barton Springs segment of the aquifer during a "drought of record" is 10 cubic feet per second, which totals 2.35 billion gallons per year. The BSEACD estimates that during the 2005 fiscal year, permitted demand will reach 12.7 cubic feet per second, or 2.87 billion gallons per year. While that pumping level is not dangerous under normal climate conditions, it would not be feasible if the region were struck by a severe drought similar to the one recorded between 1950 and 1956.

"It's important to note that historic users and current users are very, very important," said Board Member Chuck Murphy. "But I can say we're slightly prejudiced toward historic users over future development and future users of water. Part of this is to ensure that current users are not impacted negatively after they've secured their permit."

A representative of the SOS Alliance questioned whether the new rules would do enough to protect the water quality of Barton Springs, noting that a less-severe drought could still cause problems for the endangered Barton Springs salamander. "We're already pumping beyond the sustainable yield of the aquifer, and we're looking at additional applications coming in," said attorney John Fritschie. "In general, I understand that the district is taking a step here to give more authority to issue permits for water that can be curtailed…so that's obviously a good thing.

"Why wouldn't the district give itself additional authority to act as it sees fit?,” Fritschie continued. “Especially as meteorological science gets more developed…you might be able to see you're approaching a drought of record before you get into one. You might want to have the ability to be pre-emptive before you get to the situation."

But board members did not move to significantly change the plan. After consulting with their legal counsel to confirm they did have the authority to create new rules for new users, they stressed the need to continue service to existing users. Should the BSEACD change the conditions of permits for existing customers, said Board Vice-President Jack Goodman, "they'd be very, very angry with us and possibly have legal recourse."

Board President Bob Larsen praised the measure as one that balanced the competing pressures on the district, especially considering the rapid population growth over the past few years. "What this rule does is protect the current historic users, while also trying to accommodate those who come in for a new permit,” he said. “We have to be prudent stewards of this finite resource. We've looked at many alternatives of how we could proceed and still accommodate those that are pumping and those that plan to pump. It's a hard thing to do. We don't want to impose impossible rules on future growth. We're not trying to do that at all. We're trying to accommodate that in a prudent way."

The new rules passed unanimously. The guidelines for new permits go into effect immediately.

Firefighters, city search in vain for agreement

Union won't get premium without contract

The City of Austin and the Austin Association of Professional Firefighters are discussing whether they are actually going to discuss what’s on the minds of parties on both sides: working on a contract, either one-year or multi-year. But views expressed by AAPF President Mike Martinez and City Manager Toby Futrell yesterday make a quick agreement seem unlikely, since the two camps still disagree about the meaning of the “two percent public safety premium,” and the conditions the two sides may use in negotiating.

Martinez said he would meet today with Deputy City Manager Joe Canales and other city staff. “There’s reason to believe they’re going to try to offer the firefighters a one-year agreement so we can receive our one-year budgeted public safety premium,” said Martinez. “In my view, they're pushing it off to the 11th hour,” since the City Council is scheduled to vote on the budget on Monday.

Futrell says the whole point of the public safety premium is “in exchange for a successful contract.” She said the two percent available had never been a secret. But the city is not willing to simply agree to the two percent without a contract.

Martinez, on the other hand, sees the two percent as something that belongs to all public safety employees. EMS personnel, he pointed out, will receive their two percent raise in addition to the 3.5 percent allocated to all city employees, but they do not have a contract because they are not part of a union. EMS personnel work at will for the city, he said. The police negotiated a five-year contract with the city and received the two percent. Last year, firefighters chose to give up the two percent in return for keeping some fire stations open that the city wanted to close.

"The public safety premium is being held hostage" to contract negotiations, said Martinez. He believes that the city should agree to give firefighters the two percent without the contract. Firefighters will receive the 3.5 percent increase like all other employees, however.

But in Futrell’s view, the only reason for offering the public safety premium is to guarantee a contract. "You'd be asking the city to go naked to the table — and we're already thinly dressed," she said. Asked what the city hoped to gain from the contract, Futrell replied, “We are looking for ways to build some diversity into the Fire Department. Right now we are at straight civil service, because we are without a contract.”

Perhaps the two percent is not the crux of the problem. This May, the AAPF won voter approval for collective bargaining. The firefighters and the city disagree on what form bargaining should take. The city claims that the firefighters missed a deadline for giving notice that they would engage in collective bargaining for the upcoming budget year. The firefighters dispute that assessment.

Futrell says the city stands ready and willing to engage in all of the collective bargaining procedures except for one: if the two sides reached an impasse, the city is not willing for the matter to go before a judge.

Martinez disagrees. "There’s no talk of when we may start collective bargaining negotiations,” he said. “It appears there is a calculated move to avoid collective bargaining until it becomes absolutely necessary."

The city is willing to reach an agreement for arbitration or mediation, but since the firefighters failed to notify the city on time that they would engage in collective bargaining, the city is not willing to take that final step in the procedures, according to Futrell. However, the city would be willing to let a judge make the decision for budget years following this one, beginning with the ‘06 budget year, she said.

Martinez concluded, "One of the things that was mentioned to me is that the two percent in this budget would not be taken away or spent. It would remain earmarked for firefighters.” Futrell said that was true. It frequently happens that the city is still negotiating with either the police or the firefighters on October 1,she said, and a pay raise can be made retroactive. However, if the money were not spent on the public safety premium by the end of this fiscal year, the firefighters would simply lose it.

Sales tax revenues up . . . The city saw a 7.6 percent increase in sales tax revenues for July, according to City Manager Toby Futrell. "We needed six percent to stay on budget,” she said. The data means that when the Council meets next Monday to vote on the upcoming budget, there will be $370,000 that has not been allocated for something else. Some Council members have indicated that they're interested in raising the salaries of those who make the least in their city paychecks. Just how that might be accomplished without compressing the pay scale at the lower end remains to be seen . . . Vote Saturday. . . Saturday is Election Day for the Austin Independent School District, which has been extremely quiet about the election. Fewer than 2.4 percent of registered district voters cast ballots early in $519.5 million bond election. AISD spokesperson Nicole Kaufman says 8,692 citizens made it to an early polling place. The six propositions would fund construction of new elementary and middle schools as well as a performing arts center, and the renovation of some campuses and other facilities. In addition, the bonds would allow the district to upgrade safety, security and environmental measures, and refinance district debt. The bonds have garnered support from the majority of community groups, and former Governor Ann Richards has asked select Austin voters, via automated phone call, to vote yes on the bonds.Meanwhile, neighborhood activist Jeff Jack mounted a spirited campaign to defeat two of the ballot items. Boosters have been running a “get out the vote” phone bank this week, reminding voters of Saturday’s election and of the fact that a number of precincts have been combined. For more information, see . . Could be fun . . . Established political satirist P.J. O'Rourke will perform at Hogg Auditorium next Thursday at 7:30 p.m. for one show only. According to the Performing Arts Center, O’Rourke can claim more than one million words of journalism under his byline and more citations in T he Penguin Dictionary of Humorous Quotations than any other living writer.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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