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Aquifer study reactions vary

Wednesday, January 5, 2005 by

A new analysis of how pumping water from the Barton Springs Zone of the Edwards Aquifer under various climatic conditions has spurred a debate over how best to protect the region’s underground water supply. The Sustainable Yield Study, published recently by the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, shows how local wells and Barton Springs could be affected by over-pumping during severe drought conditions similar to the record-setting dry spell of the 1950's.

The Save Our Springs Alliance and other environmental groups are urging the board of the District to implement tough new rules on pumping from the aquifer, now that the study complete. However, others—including the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin—say better access to surface water supplies could take the pressure off the aquifer during periods of drought.

The study, conducted by district Senior Hydrologist Brian A. Smith and Hydrologist Brian B. Hunt, includes several scenarios based on the current pumping level of 10 cubic feet per second (cfs). About 50,000 people in Hays and Travis Counties currently rely on the Barton Springs zone of the Edwards Aquifer for their water, either through municipalities, water service corporations, or private wells.

But during a record-setting drought, the authors conclude that level of pumping would not be feasible. Over-pumping during a drought could result in the temporary stoppage of the flow of water at Barton Springs. Up to 19 percent of wells in the region could run dry or have reduced yields, and the lack of water in the freshwater portion of the aquifer would increase the possibility that underground salt water could flow into the zone normally occupied by fresh water. That could affect drinking water supplies and those endangered species that rely on the water as well.

SOS, the Sierra Club, Save Barton Creek Association, and Environmental Defense have all written letters to the BSEACD Board urging them to act quickly on the information in the report, which was designed to be a technical document, not a policy manual. While the district did adopt new rules last year governing pumping permits, SOS representatives say those will not do enough to prevent over-pumping during a severe drought. "Right now, we're pumping at an unsustainable measure if a drought were to occur. We hope that this report leads to policy decisions and pro-active measures to protect the Aquifer," said SOS staff member John Fritschie. "It would be great for the district itself to take its own measures to ensure we don't get caught in a drought year not being able to protect the Aquifer."

However, Harry Savio, executive vice president of the home builders group, said that his take on the study is that access is needed to more surface water. “The study concluded when you have an event equivalent of the 1950 event, the wells run dry,” he said. “To me, it seemed they were making a case for the need for additional surface water capacity for the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer region. And I suspect that is not going to be really embraced by the Save Barton Creek Association.”

Savio said it doesn’t make sense to him to be overly restrictive in pumping from the aquifer without seeking alternatives. “It is a logical conclusion that—even under older studies—the wells run dry and there is a history of drought and deterioration of water quality,” he said. “It’s logical for the LCRA to try to provide some relief. It would seem to me that they (environmental advocates) would want to encourage surface water availability. All of that is tied up in litigation and legislation, which are incredibly complex.”

The SOS letter to the BSEACD urges the Board to establish a ceiling on permitted pumping, to stop issuing permits for large-scale pumping pending that new ceiling, and establishing better procedures for enforcing restrictions on pumping during drought conditions. Two years ago, the city of Kyle was fined by the BSEACD for pumping more than it was permitted during a drought in the summer of 2002 (see In Fact Daily, Feb. 11, 2003).

"The reality is that there has been a historical lack of compliance by pumpers during previous drought episodes," Laura Marbury of Environmental Defense wrote in a letter to the Board. "This reality, coupled with the fact that current regular permitted pumping already exceeds the district's established sustained yield of 10 cfs, necessitates that additional measure be taken."

But the environmental organizations are not putting all of their focus on the BSEACD. "It also would be preferable for the Texas Legislature to take a look at this report and itself provide the District with additional authority to go ahead and take some of the steps that are necessary," said John Fritschie with SOS. "We hope that just because this is a wet year that it doesn't get ignored. This is the time to look at this study and go ahead and start formulating what we need to do in advance of a drought year."

To read the Sustainable Yield Study and other related documents, go to the BCEACD website at http://www.bseacd.org/research.html.

Changes, promotions mark new year at city

In addition to the new digs, City Hall is experiencing slew of personnel changes this month. Paul Hilgers, director of Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department, is welcoming Janice Kincheon to his team. Kincheon, who has served as one of three aides to Mayor Will Wynn, will begin her new job as asset manager for the Austin Housing Finance Corporation next week. Hilgers said AHFC, a separate nonprofit development corporation, is staffed by city employees under a contract with the city. “It’s the housing production arm of the city,” he said. Kincheon worked in banking for 20 years and has extensive lending experience.

City Manager Toby Futrell has promoted or given new job titles to several key city staff members. The moves will clarify the duties of employees in the city's Budget Office, Public Works Department, Parks and Recreation Department, and Watershed Protection and Development Review Department.

In a memo issued just before Christmas, Futrell announced that Rudy Garza, who has served as both City Budget Officer and Acting Assistant City Manager for Public Safety for the past six months, would no longer have to pull double duty. Garza has officially been named an Assistant City Manager and will no longer serve as Budget Officer. "As we approach the beginning of the FY 06 Budget cycle, I wanted to designate Rudy as Assistant City Manager, so that he may focus his efforts on his reporting departments," Futrell wrote. That move also means that Deputy Budget Officer Greg Canally will now serve as Acting Budget Officer. "I am confident in Greg's ability and the capacity of the entire Budget Office to create a smooth transition as we search for a permanent Budget Officer which I am hopeful to fill by late spring," Futrell wrote.

At Austin Energy, Chris Kirksey is also having the "acting" removed from his job title. He has been named Senior Vice-President off Power Production, a position he has held since August. Kirksey has been with the city-owned utility since 1986, working at the Decker Creek Power Station and the Holly Power Plant. In another personnel move, long-time city employee Cora Wright is transferring from the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department, where she has been an Assistant Director since 2001, to become the Assistant Director of the Parks and Recreation Department.

In the Public Works Department, Bill Gardner has been named as Chief Engineer and Assistant Director. He has served as Acting Assistant Director since June. And Nancy McClintock has a new job title to begin 2005. She's been promoted to Assistant Director of Watershed Protection and Development Review. For the past nine years, McClintock has been the manager of the department's Environmental Resource Management Division. She began her employment with the City in 1986 in the Department of Environmental Protection.

Finally, Cora Wright, who has served as assistant director of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department since 2001, is becoming assistant director of the Parks and Recreation Department. She worked as director of the Office of Neighborhood Services from 1999 to 2001.

Galindo asks about economics of transit-oriented development

City Planning Commissioner Cid Galindo, in a review of the proposed Transit-Oriented Development ordinance, argued last night that the city might be better served to make such development justify itself economically as well as philosophically.

Planning Commission votes, even more than the votes of the Zoning and Platting Commission, are driven by Austin’s guiding development philosophy. “Mixed-use,” “high-density” and “new urbanism” are terms both understood and supported by the Planning Commission in its votes. Money is rarely the issue at hand.

During a subcommittee review of the proposed ordinance, however, Galindo suggested that economics ought to be some kind of driver in the formula to determine whether the commuter rail line was a good investment. That investment could be included as a component of the ordinance.

Galindo provided a two-page white paper to his fellow commission members to suggest that the city should put $750 million in transportation-oriented development within walking distance of commuter rail stations. That total would recapture “the total net present value of Austin taxpayers’ investment in the Northwest rail at maturity in 25 years,” Galindo wrote in his two-page draft proposal.

Galindo laid out his case to his colleagues, saying that he wanted more density than was currently provided in the ordinance and was looking for a way to provide it. Beyond that, though, the development would provide proof for future expansion.

“What I’m really looking for is a metric,” Galindo said. “If transit-oriented development is a good idea or a good decision, then the plan ought to be done within the context of new development or what we are trying to accomplish within the TOD ordinance.”

Chair Chris Riley argued against Galindo’s proposal, saying that it turned a planning decision into a political decision. He said it would be difficult to isolate the commuter rail line as the reason why development was put on the ground and to quantify that a particular piece or amount of development was due to commuter rail. To do so would be no more than speculating about the success of TOD projects, Riley said.

“We have a commuter rail line that will have an operating loss,” Galindo told Riley. “This would demonstrate one of the benefits that, over the period of time, you can look at rail with not only a focus on an operating deficit but also the fiscal benefits.”

“But I’m not sure what that bears on our ordinance,” Riley countered.

Other commissioners also chimed in with comments on the proposal. Commissioner Dave Sullivan said he was aware of other cities that had quantified development but had also heard at a planning conference that TOD shifts business around a region but does not add to the overall tax base of a particular region.

Commissioner Matt Moore asked if the “public return” concept was anything other than a “financial pro forma” on TOD station planning. Galindo said that wasn’t his particular goal, but a way to encourage and justify higher density in the city, to measure and quantify the benefits the city would get from proposing denser development.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

A dose of levity … The chair of the student body at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School managed to get a zinger in with Zoning and Platting Commission Chair Betty Baker last night, a rare accomplishment for most adults. During what would turn out to be an overflow hearing on a Gables project on Bunny Run, James Vaughn said he could speak for many students at St. Stephen’s when he said most students would prefer to see the land undeveloped. “That could be arranged,” Baker said. After some laughter and a pause, Vaughn continued, “As this is no longer an option….” He drew a second laugh from the audience. Vaughn went on to say that the project would have another unequalled benefit: Effectively eliminating student drivers from the Bunny Run area . . . Going like hotcakes… ZAP Commissioner John Donisi wanted those in the audience to know they were in for a long meeting. Prior to the hearing, he said orders would be taken for breakfast. Not to be outdone, Baker quipped, “He has the concession.” By 10pm, only those in favor of changes to the zoning had spoken before the commission . . . Water utility hosts Israeli and Palestinian professionals . . . The Austin Water Utility (AWU) is hosting a reception at City Hall this morning for a group of 15 Israeli and Palestinian water utility professionals here for a special course. AWU members are also assisting in the training program with lectures on water supply planning, financial analysis, and utility budgeting. The course, called Managing the 21st Century Water Utility, is being held at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. The group’s members represent utility operations in Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank that are intent on developing cooperation on drinking water, wastewater and irrigation issues that affect both Israeli and Palestinian communities. Dr. David Eaton, Bess Harris Jones Centennial Professor of Natural Resource Policy Studies at the LBJ School, well known for his international outreach activities, leads the program . . . Wynn calls on Austinites to contribute to tsunami aid . . . Yesterday, Mayor Will Wynn released the following statement: “Over the past few days we have all seen the aftermath of an unimaginable catastrophic event. The loss of life is staggering. . . In light of this devastation I am asking Austinites to look deep in their hearts and deep in their pockets and give immediately to a relief fund. There is a long list of relief funds available, including a local effort by the Network of Asian American Organizations to raise $200,000 in Austin over the next two weeks.” For a complete list, visit http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/oem/relief.htm . . . Tonight’s meetings . . . The Environmental Board will meet at 6pm in Room 325 of One Texas Center. The Water and Wastewater Commission is set to meet at 6pm also in Waller Creek Plaza, Room 104. The Art in Public Places Panel will meet in the new City Hall, Room 2016 . . . Costello still pushing . . . According to an email from Austin Toll Party founder Sal Costello, petitioners have gathered about 30,000 signatures to recall Mayor Will Wynn and Council Members Brewster McCracken and Danny Thomas. But they need at least 42,000 or 10 percent of the city’s registered voters. Costello says, “What we do in the coming 7 weeks will determine if there is a recall election . . .” According to the email, the group will have “the most important meeting of the effort to stop the toll plan” tonight from 6:30 to 8pm at the Old Quarry Library, 7051 Village Center Dr., (behind the HEB on Far West Blvd.)

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