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Feds may downlist Black-Capped Vireos

Thursday, September 28, 2006 by

While some bird lovers have rushed to defend the habitat of five pairs of Black-Capped Vireos on the city’s Cortaña tract, arguing that the city should not consider use of the site for Water Treatment Plant 4, others have noted that the species appears to be doing better than previously thought—perhaps well enough that its status could be changed from “endangered” to “threatened” in the language of the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).

A second endangered songbird, the Golden-Cheeked Warbler, lives on the property originally set aside for WTP 4 at the headwaters of Bull Creek. That site is also the home of the Jollyville Plateau salamander, which has been nominated for the ESA.

The City of Austin will hold a public hearing sometime after 6pm tonight on use of the Cortaña tract. The Council has already voted to build the plant on the Bull Creek site unless Travis County agrees to allow the use of Cortaña, a part of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve. The two entities share joint responsibility for the preserve.

The US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) is the federal agency charged with protecting endangered and threatened wildlife species. FWS commissioned a study to review and collect new information on the Black-Capped Vireo.

Local FWS wildlife biologist Chuck Sexton works at the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve Refuge. Sexton told In Fact Daily that the initial recommendation, made based on a study by biologists from Texas A&M University, was to change the vireo’s status from endangered to threatened. The Arlington branch of FWS, not the Austin office, will be making the final recommendation to officials in Washington, DC.

Sexton said the health of the vireo population is “a mixed bag, We had information over the last several years that some of the populations are doing very well.” For example, he said, the bird’s numbers appear to be increasing in the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma, where there is another wildlife refuge, at Fort Hood, and “probably at the Kerr Wildlife Management Area.” There have also been what Sexton calls “great discoveries” of vireo nesting in Mexico.

In explaining the apparent improvement of the bird's prospects, Sexton said, “We have some populations that are doing well, but “we have to have well-established, self sustaining populations in many areas across the range. We need them spread out, and numerous enough, across the range that we can expect that they can do well on their own.”

Craig Farquhar, a biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, is another vireo expert. He said, “You're not going to get an official statement,” about whether it would be better to reduce one bird’s territory over another. “But it’s easy to deduce that comparatively, Golden-Cheeked Warblers are not faring as well because their range is much more restricted,” than that of the vireo. So, any reduction in their habitat is probably worse. Black-Capped Vireos have the widest range of any endangered songbird, said Farquhar, who made some of the discoveries of the bird’s breeding territory in Mexico.

The Golden-Cheeked Warbler is not found outside of Central Texas. However, he added, in Travis County the vireo has definitely lost habitat since the bird was listed as endangered. Both birds continue to lose habitat to development.

Farquhar said very little was known about Black-Capped Vireos 15-20 years ago when the bird was first listed. One thing that has not changed, however, is the fact that Brown-Headed Cowbirds parasitize the nests of Black-Capped Vireos. Since the bird was listed, biologists have learned that cowbirds can take over songbird nests in very small areas, while other areas are not so vulnerable.

In response to that, the government traps and kills cowbirds in certain Black-Capped Vireo habitat, including Travis County. Sexton said that is likely to continue. Brown-Headed Cowbirds have also increased in response to human habitation and the changed landscape, he said.

Arguing against use of Cortaña, from a distance, is Wes Bailey a former Travis County BCP biologist now working at University of Missouri. He urged the county to veto the amendment of the BCP 10(a) permit to allow the development of Cortaña for WTP4.

He wrote, “Cortana is unique in that the site contains a large (for BCP standards) level, contiguous patch of nesting habitat for the Black-capped Vireo; these characteristics are very rare in Travis County. Indeed, Cortana represents the last block of occupied Black-capped Vireo habitat that once was found along the 620/2222 corridor. Few sites remain in Travis County where topographic and geological features permit vegetation growth necessary to promote Black-capped Vireo habitat. In fact so few potential sites exist that I question whether the goal of creating 2,000 acres of Black-capped Vireo habitat within the BCP is attainable, which underscores the importance of Cortaña.”

Travis County is scheduled to hold a hearing on the matter next week.

County still working on conservation ordinance

Travis County has again revamped the incentive portion of its conservation development ordinance, but after 15 drafts and a whole lot of work, the question still remains: Is this incentive package enough to get developers on board with open space?

Executive Manager Joe Gieselman of the Transportation and Natural Resources Department has made substantive changes to the ordinance since it was presented to Commissioners Court at its tenth draft, primarily in the area of incentives. Under the new proposal, the county would create a fund each year devoted to a flat lump sum payment on acreage a developer sets aside for open space, Gieselman said. At this time, the proposal is $6 per acre, followed by a $600 per acre payment when the development begins. It’s a cleaner and more straightforward approach to payments.

Gieselman also wants to start with a pilot project – no more than five properties – for the initial ordinance. Those five properties have not been picked.

For the county – which just blasted through a significant portion of its open space money from the last bond issue on the purchase of Reimers Ranch land – the program offers tremendous advantages. As Gieselman told the court, the county would likely spend upwards of $20,000 per acre to devote to open space. Under this program, the county could spend a tenth of that and get the same benefits, without the need to provide upkeep.

But as Gieselman told the court, the reaction to the ordinance from the development community has been mixed, from no interest to great interest. Mitch Wright of the Real Estate Council of Austin said RECA had taken no position on the ordinance yet, but he noted that the incentives might not be enough to attract interest. He noted that the ordinance was aimed at a niche developer, but he encouraged the county to broaden the program – and the incentives – to attract interest, possibly by decreasing the amount of required land to qualify for the ordinance and providing ascending incentives.

Right now, the ordinance requires 50 percent of any development to be turned over for open space, a concept that consultant Joe Lessard has compared to the concept of a golf course community without the golf course. Wright suggested that the county could pay some amount for developers willing to devote 20 or 30 percent of their property to open space, offering even more in payments as the total acreage approaches 50 percent.

The ordinance could also apply to property owners who want to maintain farms and ranches, but the number of prospective land owners is limited. Gieselman estimated that about 1,600 parcels of land in Travis County are currently under agricultural exemptions, most in the northeast and western fringes of the county. The largest is about 6,000 acres. About 100 properties are probably 500 acres or greater. The average size is 65 acres.

Dripping Springs is the only local community with a conservation ordinance on the books right now. The incentive for Dripping Springs’ ordinance, however, is density rather than a particular financial incentive to the developer, Gieselman noted.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who initiated the Southwest Growth Dialog that spawned the conservation development ordinance, said he was 100 percent supportive of the county’s proposal, but he noted that it’s got to be “a pretty darn good financial incentive” for a developer to skim 250 acres off a 500-acre parcel. Without the financial model, such incentives just won’t make sense for developers, Daugherty said.

Commissioner Karen Sonleitner said she had three concerns: what the value of the land would be on the appraisal roles if a conservation easement was attached; whether it should be the executive manager of Transportation and Natural Resources to approve various aspects of the deal, or whether it should be commissioners court; and the need to educate people that if the ordinance passed, it would give people the right to develop land. In the case of the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Preserves, the goal was to give the county land in exchange for development rights, a point that many people refused to agree with, despite any amount of safeguards on development.

County Judge Sam Biscoe called the question on the ordinance, asking Gieselman just how many more versions the commissioners might see. Gieselman said the basic core of the ordinance was in place. He noted that the goal was to create an incentive that was calibrated so that neither too many – nor too few – applications would flow into the county for consideration. The court gave Gieselman another month to work out the details, with the intention of putting the ordinance back on the agenda on Oct. 24.

Water leaks lead to crisis management at city

Hot, dry weather has had city crews scrambling the past few weeks to keep up with a larger than usual number of water line leaks and water main breaks, according to Austin Water Utility Director Chris Lippe.

Lippe told the Water and Wastewater Commission last night that the utility’s repair crews went into a crisis mode in August, responding to almost twice the number of repair calls received the previous year.

“It’s a result of the extremely dry weather,” Lippe said. “We still have 29 open work orders, so we are almost caught up. Things have really slowed down as the temperatures have dropped.

Lippe said utility crews were put in a modified emergency operations mode, meaning that some crews were moved from other tasks, and evening and Saturday shifts were added to keep up with the workload.

He said the city received 411 water-related calls in August, compared to 284 in August, 2005. Of those, 316 calls this August were for leaks in pipes, as opposed to 187 calls last year.

Lippe said the water utility has been charting the number of reported leaks along with weather and moisture conditions so that they might be better able to predict when a large number of leaks could occur and be prepared.

In other action, the Commission voted 7-0 to recommend an agreement between the city and the University of Texas to transfer some city water infrastructure to the University for $82,000 in compensation.

“The area in question has been taken over by UT as it has expanded beyond the original 40 acres,” said AWU’s Bart Jennings. “UT can use the infrastructure to meet its needs, and the city will no longer have to maintain the pipes.”

Jennings said as part of the agreement, UT will install four main meters, which will be turned over to the city to provide retail water service to the campus.

The Commission also voted to recommend a $1.6 million contract with Thompson Industrial Coatings for the La Crosse Reservoir Recoating and Safety Improvements Project.

Water conservation panel to begin work

Members of the Environmental Board and Water and Wastewater Commission joined City Council Members Lee Leffingwell and Sheryl Cole at City Hall on Wednesday to announce their goals for the new Water Conservation Task Force. Leffingwell hopes the group will develop strategies to reduce the city’s annual peak-day water usage by 10 percent within the next 10 years.

“That goal translates into a savings over that 10-year period of 25 million gallons of water per day, during summer months and peak usage,” said Leffingwell. “This task force will bring together input from stakeholders and consumers, business interests, water planning experts, and neighborhood people.” The three Council Members on the task force will be joined by members of the Resource Management Commission, Planning Commission, Water and Waste Water Commission, and the Environmental Board. Members of the SOS Alliance, the Hill Country Conservancy, and individual business owners also attended Wednesday’s announcement.

The task force will seek ways to promote conservation by individual homeowners, business and large industrial users, and new city policies to reduce water usage. For homeowners, Leffingwell said, “landscape practices will be a target-rich environment for us water conservationists as we move forward.” That will not necessarily mean mandatory water restrictions, but “if you want to have a big green lawn you can still do that, but use efficient water irrigation practices to do it,” Leffingwell said.

Among businesses, the hospitality industry may be among the first to see changes, with Cole suggesting that local restaurants cut back on the amount of water they serve to customers. She said that many restaurant customers, including herself and her own family, frequently ordered water at restaurants but did not drink it. “The water gets taken back. We’re going to have to do something about it. I am just going to order water if they are going to drink it,” she concluded. “That’s the type of little changes that we can make in our lives that this committee can put front and center…that we just think about conserving water.”

In California, state officials adopted a rule that prohibits restaurants during a time of drought from delivering water to customers unless they specifically request it ( http://www.cpuc.ca.gov/PUBLISHED/REPORT/40495.htm).

“The other thing that we have to think about doing is quickly and cost-efficiently repairing leaks,” Cole said. “We will look at best practices in other cities to repair those leaks in a timely, cost-efficient manor. We hope to take the plumbers to the people.”

Leffingwell said he hoped to have a set of recommendations ready for the full Council by the end of January. “We have a structure set up as to how we’re going to proceed meeting by meeting. We’re going to deal with outdoor strategies, indoor strategies, and governmental strategies…which would include things like repairing the leaks in our existing system and probably establishing a fifth tier in our rate structure,” he said. “We will be receiving input from across the community.”

The first meeting of the task force will be on Friday at 2:30pm in the Boards and Commissions room at City Hall.

©2006 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Today's City Council meeting. . . Council Member Jennifer Kim is recommending Jon Beall, a former president of the Save Barton Creek Association, for appointment to the Environmental Board at today's Council meeting . . . There may be some changes to the franchise agreement between Texas Gas Service and the City of Austin when the matter comes before the Council today. Council Member Lee Leffingwell said he wants to make sure that the contract, which has 10 renewal options after the first 10 years, will come back to the City Council after its initial term. He also said he would like the city to receive a higher payment from those gas customers who use TGS's transportation services but buy their gas from other utilities. That includes a number of large customers such as Seton and Motorola, he said. However, Leffingwell said he does not want to raise the fees paid by the Austin ISD or other governmental entities . . . Other Council items that may draw a crowd include the second and third reading of the Code amendments to the new Residential Design and Compatibility Standards, a.k.a. the McMansions Ordinance; the second and third reading on the Mobile Food Establishments ordinance; public hearings on three neighborhood plans, including Parker Lane, Riverside and Pleasant Valley neighborhood combining districts; and last on the schedule (think late night), a hearing on building the Water Treatment Plant 4 on the Cortaña site near Lake Travis . . . North Acres annex hearing . . . The City of Austin will conduct two public hearings to provide the public the chance to voice its opinions on the city's proposed annexation of the North Acres area in northeast Travis County. The hearings will take place after 6pm during today's Council meeting and at 6:30pm on Oct. 3 at Holy Word Lutheran Church, 10601 Bluff Bend Dr. Those wishing to speak at the second hearing can register at Holy Word Lutheran Church beginning at 5:45pm. The North Acres annexation area covers approximately 381 acres in northeast Travis County between North I-35 and Dessau Road just south of East Braker Lane . . . Wildflowers for US183A . . . The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority is joining forces with the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center to enhance the natural beauty of the 183A toll road in Cedar Park and Leander. As part of a partnership agreement, the Wildflower Center will develop and implement a program to create wildflower meadows along the 11.6-mile 183A. "We are fortunate to have the expertise of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center right here in Central Texas," says Mike Heiligenstein, Executive Director of the Mobility Authority. "Roadway beautification is a top priority of the Mobility Authority and the Wildflower Center will help us achieve our vision of a toll road system that promotes economic development and enhances the quality of life in Central Texas." Under the terms of the agreement the Wildflower Center will develop planting schemes for each wildflower meadow. The center will identify the seed type, seed quantity, and planting method most suitable to produce a thriving wildflower ecosystem. The center will then oversee the management of each meadow for a three year period to ensure the long term survival of the selected species . . . Kyle hires assistant City Manager . . . Kyle City Manager Tom Mattis has announced the hiring of James R. Earp, CPM, as Kyle Assistant City Manager. Earp joins the City of Kyle after two years with the City of Ennis, where he served as Assistant to the City Manager. His duties with the City of Ennis included personnel management, budgeting, risk management, economic development, and general management support. Earp will be focusing on similar duties with the City of Kyle . . . San Marcos Council goes paperless . . . The City of San Marcos will begin using a "paperless" agenda process for posting and using agenda materials through the Internet at City Council meetings starting with the Oct. 3 session. The reams of paper that have previously been used to print agenda packets will be replaced by City Council access using laptop computers at meetings and public access via the city's web site at http://www.ci.san-marcos.tx.us/publicagenda. A limited number of paper copies will be available for the public at meetings.

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