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Aquifer district criticizes golf course request

Monday, December 19, 2005 by

TCEQ not doing its job, says BSEACD

A water rights permit pending before the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has one small community and local groundwater officials worried about the potential affect it could have on the water levels of area aquifers.

Officials of the Golf Course at Circle C Ranch have applied for a permit for the rights to drill a new water well capable of pumping as much as 250 gallons per minute—about 1 million gallons per day—to refill surface water in ponds on its golf course lost through evaporation.

The comment period for the permit ended last week, and TCEQ could issue the permit at any time. An internet search of TCEQ records on Friday showed the golf course’s water rights permit application still pending.

The nearby Village of Bear Creek has previously filed a protest with the TCEQ, claiming that level of pumpage just 2½ miles away could dry up its water supply. (See In Fact Daily, July 22, 2005). Village officials could not be reached for comment on the most recent developments in the case.

A major concern of all involved is that the well permit is for a location that does not fall within the jurisdiction of any local government or groundwater conservation district, thus avoiding any constraints in pumping volume, even during a period of drought.

In a letter to the TCEQ, Kirk Holland, general manager of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, said the state agency wasn’t performing its duties in this case.

“We have serious reservations about the impact of the prospective water use on District constituents and other adjacent landowners, about the wasteful use of groundwater, and also about the artificially circumscribed perspective that TCEQ is taking on the scope of concerns in considering this permit application,” Holland wrote. “We believe that TCEQ has not fulfilled its obligations to create or otherwise provide the inherent protections of a groundwater conservation district in this priority groundwater management area.”

The letter notes that while the well will be located in a place that falls outside of the jurisdiction of the BSEACD or the neighboring Trinity Hays Groundwater Conservation District, much of the water will be pumped from the lower depths of the Trinity Aquifer, endangering that source for those who depend on it.

Holland also criticized the TCEQ for its statements during a public hearing that the issue is “not about ground water.”

“Most of the ‘surface water’ for which this permit is sought only became surface water at the wellhead, after it was pumped from one or more groundwater production wells,” he wrote. “These were never surface waters of the State until then, and the water should have been regulated by rules appropriate for a priority groundwater management area.”

He also noted that the proposed use for the water is potentially wasteful.

“The principal function of this new water in the Golf Club's water management scheme seems to be as makeup water for the pond system to provide irrigation of the golf course,” he wrote. “In effect, much of this groundwater is simply being evaporated at the land surface; the evaporative and transpiratory losses of such water would not occur otherwise.”

The BSEACD Board discussed the matter last week and determined there was no immediate action they could take beyond Holland’s letter to the state, as they did not have standing to contest the case in court.

“It’s important that we support our sister district,” said Vice Chair Jack Goodman. Other board members wondered if this incident might be an incentive for the district to consider asking the state to expand its jurisdiction farther into the western parts of Travis County to prevent similar situations in the future. Such an expansion would have to be approved by voters living in that part of the county.

County to reorganize Criminal Justice Center

Travis County Commissioners are getting ready to pull the trigger on the first reorganization of space in the Thurman-Blackwell Criminal Justice Center, a plan that also will include the relocation of the Sheriff’s Department and the expansion of the District Attorney’s office.

As Belinda Powell of the Planning and Budget Office told county commissioners last week, the plan for the criminal justice tower could have taken one of two paths, either laying floor space that would eventually be built out or put in floor plates as space was needed. The county took the latter course, and the time now has come to make the first adjustments in the criminal courts building to accommodate growth. Powell described it as “dropping more courts” into the criminal courts tower.

While it may seem that the county is making adjustments only a couple of years after the building was opened, Powell said the CJC plan is right on course. The current building configuration, which houses 12 of the 14 criminal courts plus various county offices, was planned in 1998 and intended to carry the county to December 2003. It’s already December 2005, Powell pointed out. At its full build-out, the Thurman-Blackwell CJC should be able to house 18 courts.

A number of factors have triggered the expansion needs: a new criminal court approved by the Legislature for 2007; a less-than-compact configuration of the Sheriff’s Department offices once the department decided to decentralize; and a desire to put the District Attorney’s offices in one location.

And, as District Court Judge John Dietz noted, Austin will be the size of San Antonio in 35 years, about 1.3 million people. At that rate of growth, Travis County should be adding an additional set of courts –civil court, criminal court and district court — every four to five years to keep up with the growing population.

That growth is expected to lead to the replacement of the current Heman Sweatt Courthouse. Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, in particular, was looking for any alternative to stretch current space. He proposed the possibility of evening court hours. Dietz said he’d be happy to do so, if Daugherty was ready to sign the jury summons. Expanding court hours would mean a need for expanded staffing or overtime hours.

“Commissioner, obviously you’re trying to be prudent with the public’s money, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Dietz said. “But by the same token, we’re working in a building that was constructed in 1930. I think the rule of thumb in court buildings is that you generally build them for a 55-year lifespan. It’s not exactly true that we’re being extravagant in terms of our number of courthouses. As far as I know, in the history of Travis County, we’ve only had one courthouse at Fourth and Guadalupe, one at 11th and Congress and now this is our third courthouse.”

Elected officials, who have been meeting with Powell and the county’s space planning committee, have signed off on a document that reallocates space. The Sheriff’s Department, which occupies the Gault Building adjacent to Thurman-Blackwell, already has been decentralized.

In fact, the Sheriff’s Office has relocated five times in the last 20 years. Under the plan, the Sheriff’s Office would vacate its non-court related space in favor of a new location. At that point, the District Attorney’s office would move into the Gault Building’s remaining space and then a walkway would be built between the Gault Building and the third floor space in the CJC that the District Attorney’s office occupies. The criminal section of the District Clerk’s office will remain in existing space in the CJC tower.

The county expects to see some savings of lease space from the new consolidation of space. The county intended to allocate $150,000 for its first plans to expand the CJC space. County Judge Sam Biscoe said he was open to increasing that amount if the court could be provided with a more accurate, and broader, scope of construction work.

Hurricanes help health officials ready for flu

No reason to sound alarm, says official

The Austin-Travis County Health and Human Services Department is drawing on its experience in dealing with evacuees from Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita to draft a plan for responding to a possible bird flu pandemic.

According to Dr. Adolfo Valadez, Medical Director for the Austin-Travis County Health and Human Services Department a pandemic is defined as “an epidemic of a certain agent occurring simultaneously around the world.” Department officials estimate up to 325,000 people in Central Texas could be affected by a widespread outbreak of a new flu strain, such as the H5N1 avian influenza—or bird flu—that has infected dozens of people overseas.

“It seems that we are still at low risk for a pandemic here in Austin and in the United States. Although we do have a new virus out there and it has shown some transmission to humans, it has not been very efficiently transmitted, and that is the fortunate piece of the puzzle that has not been put in place yet to cause a pandemic,” said Dr. Valadez. “It’s very low probability, but it still makes us in public health nervous.”

The concern among health officials at both the national and local levels is that the disease could begin to spread from person to person. “We are not sounding an alarm,” Austin-Travis County Health and Human Services Department Director David Lurie said in a presentation to the Austin City Council Health and Human Services Subcommittee. “Our goals here are to inform and to be prepared.”

Of the 325,000 who could be infected in the event that a flu pandemic hits Austin, about 13,000 would require hospitalization and up to 5,500 could die. The large number of people requiring hospitalization would force the city to set up temporary emergency medical facilities, just as during Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. “The number of possible hospitalizations far exceeds our capacity within the city, and would far exceed any city or county capacity in terms of hospital beds,” said Dr. Valadez.

He also advised the subcommittee that the nation’s disease tracking system would likely provide a three-month advance notice before a major outbreak in Austin, but that there would also be a significant time delay in coming up with a commercially-available vaccine for a new flu strain. While local health officials regularly coordinate with officials at the state and the CDC to track the spread of infectious disease, Dr. Valadez said the system had received a good workout during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

During a flu pandemic, the Health Department would step up efforts with pharmacies and doctors to contain the spread of the disease. But the department would also rely on non-medical techniques to stop the transmission of the flu virus, such as urging groups to cancel large gatherings.

Lurie suggested the Council consider what role the city would play in canceling those large gatherings, along with the role that AISD would play in reducing the opportunities for person-to-person transmission.

“If school children are at home that would mean parents would need to be home with them, so that would have significant implications for the workforce,” Lurie said. “From the public health perspective, we would want to err on the side of being most cautious and recommending action very early on if we were notified of anything like this potentially occurring.”

The department expects to have its pandemic response plan finalized within three months. Most of the pieces of the plan are already in place, said Valadez. “We began this planning process over a year ago,” he said. “Right now we are fine-tuning it and evaluating other city and state health department plans to see what would work here.”

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Brown out of special election . . . House District 48 candidate Andy Brown will have to wait until the March primary to run for the seat vacated by Todd Baxter. That leaves two Democrats— Donna Howard and Kathy Rider—to face Republican Ben Bentzin for the honor of representing the district in a special session next spring . . . Meetings . . . The Historic Landmark Commission meets at 7pm in room 325 at One Texas Center . . . The Urban Transportation Commission meets in the 8th floor of One Texas Center . . .The Electric Utility Commission meets at 6pm at Town Lake Center . . . The Arts Commission meets at 6:30pm in Council Chambers at City Hall . . . No drought yet . . . The Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District board took no action last week on declaring a Stage II Drought alert. District staff reported that some, but not all, of the district’s trigger wells were below drought level, but others remain above the critical mark. The board said it would take a “wait and see” attitude and reexamine the numbers in January . . . Martinez fundraiser . . . Place 2 City Council candidate Mike Martinez is hosting a fundraiser for supporters beginning at 5:30pm at Nuevo Leon at 1501 E. Sixth St. Martinez, who is also president of the Austin Firefighters Association, is kicking off his campaign to take the seat of two-term Council Member Raul Alvare z, who will step down next summer . . . Round Rock Council . . . Ted Williamson defeated Sharon Izzo by 301 votes in a Saturday runoff to claim the Place 6 seat on the Round Rock City Council. Williamson received 812 votes to 511 votes for Izzo. The Place 6 seat became vacant when Gary Coe resigned to run for the Williamson County Commission Precinct 4 seat next year . . . Clarification . . . Council Member Jennifer Kim points out that last Friday’s whisper concerning a vote on the Champion tracts was incorrect. Kim and Council Members Brewster McCracken and Raul Alvarez voted against the zoning change, not against a recommendation from the Environmental Board concerning a traffic impact analysis. The matter will return to the Council next month for third reading, after mediation. Two of the tracts have valid petitions, which means changes to the zoning—including the amount of traffic allowed—would require approval from six members of the Council.

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