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LCRA faces continued challenges over water systems

Thursday, December 16, 2004 by

First floods, then protests made November a memorable month at the agency

It was a November to remember at the Lower Colorado River Authority. Torrential rains that began in the middle of the month pushed river and lake levels and the people who manage them to the extreme. Then, the agency was hit with protests from environmentalists and residents over its plans to build a water supply pipeline along Hamilton Pool Road.

And even though the LCRA board voted to finalize the pipeline project last week, the controversy continued Wednesday as the same groups pressured the agency directors over environmental and development aspects of other projects.

In his report to the board, General Manager Joe Beal said the heavy rainfall that began in the Texas Hill Country around November 13 filled the Highland Lakes—already near capacity from an unusually wet summer and fall—to flood stage and beyond. “It pushed our facilities and our people to their limits,” he said. “We had what we consider our ‘nightmare’ scenario—heavy rains that filled the upper lakes, followed by more rainfall downstream.”

Beal said the LCRA staff, from the engineers who managed the dam gates to the Rangers to those who forecast the water flow, performed extremely well during the crisis. To outline the situation they faced, Beal pointed out that in November, the inflow of water to the Highland lakes was 630,000 acre-feet of water, more than 20 times the amount handled in November 2003, and almost four times the average November inflow over the past 10 years.

Lake Travis, which was at a healthy 96 percent full at 678 feet on Nov. 1, had swelled to 111 percent full at 687 feet by Dec. 1. The lake crested at 697 feet on November 24.

That was just the beginning, Beal said, as the water passed down from the Highland Lakes joins heavy rainfall downstream to cause major flooding in areas like Bastrop, Smithville, LaGrange, Columbus, and eventually, Wharton.

“The City of Wharton was hit hard for the third time since 1991,” Beal said “The Saturday after Lake Travis peaked, we worked with the National Weather Service to forecast the stage height at various places down the river, including Wharton. But despite out best data, the river crested eight feet higher than our prediction in the Wharton area, flooding more than 200 homes.”

Beal said the LCRA staff, including a number of local managers and Rangers, worked with local officials in Southeast Texas to help manage the floodwaters.

“We learned some things from dealing with this event,” he said. “We were very puzzled that our downstream forecast was so far off target. As we re-analyzed our data, we found that we were not able to measure the rainfall between the gauges we have set up along the lower river. We are developing ways to account for the extra inflow during future events.

As the board moved on to other items, members of the Hill Country Coalition, the Save Our Springs Alliance and others lobbied heavily, asking the board to reconsider aspects of some of its water projects that they believe encourage high-density growth in environmentally sensitive areas. Members of the same groups held a protest on Lake Austin Boulevard prior to the start of yesterday’s meeting.

The group objected to parts of two projects on the agenda: an $850,000 capital improvement to fund development of water and wastewater systems for the West Travis County area, and an application for a grant to fund a study of a Spicewood Regional Water and Wastewater Planning Study.

Laura Guilke, a Spicewood resident and HCC member, said she wanted the LCRA to do better planning. “We are very concerned about how growth will occur in our area,” she said. “We would ask for a moratorium on all water contracts before the issues surrounding the impact they will have on the area can be studied.”

HCC member Christy Muse warned the Board that once they put the facilities for development in place, “there’s no turning back.” She encouraged them to build environmental protections into their projects now, rather than wait until it was took late.

SOS attorney John Fritschie said the LCRA needed to be more responsible in its decision-making. “The LCRA is promoting growth,” he said. “We would like to see improvement in the public participation in the process. We need to study whether there is enough water in the future stream flows to handle the anticipated growth.”

On more than one occasion, Board Chair Ray Wilkerson had to admonish speakers to contain their remarks to the specific measure up for consideration, as they periodically touched on other LCRA policies not up for discussion at the time. Board members unanimously approved both the measures.

Commission endorses more condos for Southeast Austin

The Planning Commission this week endorsed plans for construction of 300 condominiums in Southeast Austin to be built under the city's Smart Housing guidelines. Developers plan to consolidate five separate tracts on Metcalfe Road and Wickshire Lane for the condo project. Most of the land is currently zoned SF-3, with a small portion zoned LO. The Planning Commission supported the developer’s request to change the zoning on all 26 acres to SF-6-CO.

"We're here because we see a need for housing for people who want to live close to downtown where they work, where they play, where they shop," said David Mahn of Benchmark Development, "yet they want to own their homes…but they can't afford a $300,000 home close to downtown. We believe there's a strong need for that and we're trying to meet that need, providing homes for police officers, teachers, state workers." Mahn's proposal is for condominiums ranging between $100,000 and $175,000, with 40 percent of the units reserved for families making 80 percent or less of the Median Family Income. He showed the Commission four different floor plans, all for two-story units built on a 25' x 30' foundation. The first floor of the condos would have just over 700 square feet of space, with the second story offering just over 300 square feet. The total size of the four different units proposed ranges from 1,011 square feet to 1,373 square feet.

Some of the nearby neighbors applauded the move to build more homes in the area that could be owner-occupied instead of rental units such as duplexes or apartments. "It's very important to me that this get developed," said Jim Temple. "There's been a lot of pressure to provide more single-family housing…and to promote home ownership. I think this project will actually achieve all of those items, and I think it's very important to consider that."

But other neighbors criticized the condos, saying they were no different from the apartments, duplexes, or fourplexes that dominate the area. "The 78741 zip code is already the second highest density in population in Austin, and has grown considerably since the last census. Over 82 percent of our residences in this are are condo, fourplex, duplex and apartment rental units," said Sam Ellison. "This proposed arrangement is not worth changing the zoning. At best, it would not be a true home-ownership opportunity. Under the condo association structure residents are not able to own the land their structure sits on. There are no assurances these properties will not become rental or investment situations." Other neighbors were even more blunt in their assessment of the existing population density. "How about letting some of the less dense neighborhoods shoulder the burden of affordable housing and rental properties?" asked Tom Pate, a long-time resident. "Why promote such development in an area already burdened with problems associated with such zoning?"

Those opposed to the project also pointed to the likely impact on nearby Linder Elementary. They provided documentation from AISD officials that the school is currently operating at 167 percent of capacity and qualified as one of the most overcrowded schools within the district. "I've had discussions with AISD and Dan Robertson, their head of planning," said Carl Braun, who submitted an e-mail from Robertson estimating that the boundaries of Linder would have to be adjusted to compensate for an additional 200 to 300 children living close to the school. "Young families usually have children and there will be an impact on the school," he concluded. Mahn countered that the design of the condos' floor plans would not be likely to attract families with young children.

Commissioner David Sullivan moved approval of the developer's request. "I believe the solution to school overcrowding is expanding schools and building new schools, but I think we should also be looking at adding child-age populations close to schools so that kids can walk to school or ride their bikes to school, or parents who drive their kids to school have a shorter trip," he said. "I would encourage more children to live in that neighborhood." He pointed out that under the existing SF-3 zoning, the 26 acres could hold between 100 and 140 duplexes, which could mean 280 new families without the benefits of home ownership. "It's only a little bit more dense that what duplexes would be," he said. "I think that the density issues are not that important. Overall, I believe this is a good project for this location."

The commission's unanimous vote in favor of the project included recommendations against developing a gated community and the request that access for a hike-and-bike trail be preserved along Country Club Creek. Commissioner Matt Hollon also urged the developers to take steps beyond the city's requirements for protecting that creek from runoff and erosion.

"I'm very concerned that the existing stormwater control requirements are not getting the job done in this particular watershed," he said. " I'm really going to try to encourage folks to work with the city water quality and erosion staff to see if some additional measures might be possible so that this project does not create additional costs to the community at large."

Council meeting . . . Today's meeting is the final one of the year for the Austin City Council, which will take a break until January 13. That meeting will be a first in the new City Hall and even though most of the technology planned to ease presentations has not yet been installed, the new chambers will have an entirely different feel from the board room at the LCRA. It's not clear when boards and commissions will begin meeting in City Hall but a member of the staff told Council Members on the Audit and Finance Committee yesterday that their next meeting would be in the Board and Commission Room at the new building . . . The City Council is scheduled to consider approving contracts for this session’s list of legislative lobbyists today. The city’s Director of Governmental Affairs, John Hrncir, said each of those on list had previously worked for the city and that all of those on the current roster were part of the lobby team in 2003 except for Andrea and Dean McWilliams of McWilliams and Associates. He said Andrea McWilliams, a Democrat, and her husband, Dean, a Republican, had a small contract with the city during the special session. “The City Council was interested in someone who added more demographic values“ to the current mix. The rest of the team includes Carl Richie of Gardere Wynne, Reggie Bashur, Randy H. Erben, Susan C. Rocha of Denton, Navarro, Rocha and Bernal, Barbara T. McCall Associates, Marta Greytok, Carl A. Parker, Clayton Pope, Adams and Zottarelli, and Cliff Johnson. Adams and Zottarelli are being paid $189,000. Richie, Bashur, Erben, Pope and Johnson are being paid $90,000. McCall is primarily involved with federal issues and works for Austin in Washington D.C. Her stipend is $75,000. Rocha will receive $72,000, while Greytok will pull down $65,000. Former state senator Carl Parker is being paid $40,000. Hrncir said all contracts are for the current session plus any special sessions that may occur before October 1, the end of the city’s fiscal year . . . Campaign kickoff… Gregg Knaupe told a crowd of about 50 people last night of his plan to run for the Austin City Council—without revealing whether he will run for Place 1, currently held by Daryl Slusher or Place 3, currently held by Jackie Goodman. Knaupe focused on promoting social equality, economic development, managing growth and improving Austin’s relationship with other governmental entities. Those in the crowd included Harry Savio of the Capital Area Homebuilders Association and downtown bar owner Paul Silver, who has worked to make the smoking ordinance an issue in next spring's races. Asked whether he was supporting Knaupe, Silver indicated that he had just written a check to the campaign. But whether the rookie candidate wins this race or not, Silver said he considers Knaupe to be a player, one who will eventually win a Council election . . . Recycling demonstration today… Texas Campaign for the Environment activists plan to demonstrate at the office of Apple Computer today at 2:45pm. The object of their wrath is Steve Jobs, CEO and co-founder of Apple, because the company charges American customers $30 to recycle old computer equipment. Texas Campaign for the Environment was successful in convincing Dell Computer to recycle its equipment without charge, a feat they hope to replicate with Apple… Public hearings. . .The City Council will hold three public hearings this evening, none of which is likely to draw a large crowd. They will consider approving an ordinance on the assessments for the Downtown Austin Public Improvement District. More importantly, they are expected to approve an ordinance creating a reinvestment zone for the Mueller property and establish a board of directors to deal with the financing of the zone. Finally, they will hold a public hearing and consider whether to grant a variance to allow construction in a flood plain in the Onion Creek area. There are also 12 new zoning cases slated for public hearing at 4pm. Some of those could easily spill over to the 6pm venue.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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