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City reports cleaner creeks as a result of Austin Clean Water Program

Thursday, June 25, 2009 by Bill McCann

The $400 million Austin Clean Water Program, established to fix the city’s sewer system and prevent sewage overflows, is paying off with greatly reduced overflows and cleaner creeks citywide, according to a report to the Environmental Board last week.

 

Recent stream tests indicate that water quality has improved in at least a dozen urban creeks as a result of the program. In addition, the volume and number of sewage overflows have dropped dramatically since the program began in nearly eight years ago, the report shows.

 

Begun in 2001 under orders from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the clean water program was completed this spring – ahead of EPA’s June deadline. The city had faced the possibility of heavy fines if it did not comply. EPA ended its action against the city in May.

 

The clean water program totaled 100 capital improvement projects in 70 neighborhoods. This included replacing or repairing more than 1 million linear feet, or nearly 200 miles, of pipe; eliminating 10 sewage lift stations; rerouting miles of sewer pipes away from streams; improving and restoring stream banks on 62 of the 100 projects; and improving response time to calls about sewer emergencies.

 

In 2004-2005, for example, the city responded to emergency wastewater calls in less than an hour a total of 58 percent of the time. By 2007-2008, that number jumped to 80 percent, the report shows.

 

In 2002, about 13.3 million gallons of sewage overflowed from the city sewer system, according to the report. The overflow volume dropped to 10 million gallons in 2004, to 900,000 gallons in 2006, and to 400,000 gallons in 2008 as more and more sewer line projects were completed. In 2009 through March the sewage-spill total was 146,000 gallons.

 

Another measurement, which looks at overflows per 100 miles of pipe, shows that sewage overflows dropped from more than 10 per 100 miles in 2004-2005 to 4 per 100 miles in 2007-2008.

 

“Our goal is to make that number zero over the next few years,” said Gopal Guthikonda, the Austin Water Utility’s assistant director of engineering services and manager of the clean water program. The EPA considers 8 overflows per 100 miles to be reasonable, he said.

 

Guthikonda presented the Austin Clean Water Program completion report to the Environmental Board. Joining him was Ed Peacock, environmental engineer in the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department.

 

Peacock reported on the results of recent water quality testing in area creeks. The city did two types of tests, one for big-picture water quality, and a second for ammonia, an indicator of the presence of human sewage, according to Peacock.

 

One set of tests used an Environmental Integrity Index developed by the city’s Environmental Management Resource Division to assess the ecological integrity of area waters. The index uses six different criteria, including nutrients, bacteria, and suspended solids, to produce an environmental integrity score. In creeks where before-and-after results coincided with sewer upgrades, tests showed that water quality scores improved at 11 of 16 locations, Peacock said.

 

Improvements were significant, test results show, at a number of locations, including Fort Branch above Manor Road; Williamson Creek at I-35; Buttermilk Creek at Little Walnut Creek; Little Walnut Creek at U.S. 183; South Boggy Creek at West Dittmar Road; and Carson Creek at Shady Spring Subdivision.

 

The ammonia tests indicated improvements at 12 of 17 sites where before-and-after results coincided with sewer upgrades, according to Peacock. The most significant improvements, according to the data, were at Fort Branch above Manor Road; Tannehill Creek and Lovell Drive; and Johnson Creek at Woodmont Avenue.

 

Environmental Board members said they were impressed with the program results and praised the city staff for the program’s successful completion.

 

“This has been an amazing project,” said Board Chair Mary Gay Maxwell.

 

Board Member Mary Ann Neely added: “This whole program has been done at the highest professional level, and we appreciate that.”

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