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Walk for a Day regional trail would extend 35 miles south of Barton Springs

Friday, June 26, 2009 by Charles Boisseau

A group of about 20 stakeholders gathered last week for the first public glimpse of an ambitious plan to build a 35-mile regional trail from Barton Springs south into Hays County.

 

The volunteer steering committee was created in 2000 to advise the Austin Water Utility on ways it could allow public access to its Water Quality Protection Lands, which would make the trail possible.

 

The City of Austin has amassed about 23,500 acres of land and development rights after voters passed three bond issues to protect the water quality of the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer. These Water Quality Protection Lands are designed to be left undeveloped to protect water quality.

 

Some of those water quality lands – as well as city parkland — would be used in the regional trail. The trail is envisioned not only as a way to protect environmentally sensitive lands but as an opportunity to educate the public – through interpretive signs, for example — about the unique qualities of the porous lands over the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer in southern Travis and northern Hays counties.

 

The initial cost estimates for the so-called “Walk for a Day Trail” are sketchy, predictions range from roughly $5 to $10 million, not counting money needed for maintenance. It’s also unclear how long it might take to build. “Perhaps five to ten years,” said George Cofer, executive director of the Hill Country Conservancy. 

 

Cofer said the trail represents a “shovel-ready project” that may attract federal funds through economic stimulus and transportation grants.

 

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett has requested $750,000 in appropriations in the fiscal 2010 federal budget for the first phase of the trail, while U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith has requested $500,000 for the second phase. 

 

Steve Windhager, director of the Landscape Restoration Program of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, gave a presentation highlighting the environmental issues of the proposed trail, which would run through an area with numerous karsts, where water is readily recharged into the aquifer. “Our goal is to find a route or routes that we can undertake without compromising our water quality mission,” Windhager said.

 

The area is also a habitat for endangered species, like endangered black-capped vireos and golden-cheeked warblers.

The stakeholder group has met only infrequently since May 2001, when it submitted a “conceptual plan for public use” on the Water Quality Protection Lands. That plan recommended that a variety of trails and educational activities be implemented on Upper Barton Creek, Bull Creek, Slaughter Creek, Onion Creek and Lower Bear Creek watersheds over a seven-year period.

 

Despite some venting about the process, stakeholders said they were generally supportive of the regional trail, which Robin Gray of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District likened to a “Central Texas version of the Appalachian Trail.”

 

In the end, the city staff and the stakeholder group agreed to double the number of meetings in which members can learn about and provide feedback on the regional trail concept. Starting in August, consultants plan to do an extensive “boots on the ground” survey of the area to better identify the most appropriate routes for a trail.

 

As the stakeholder group weighs in with its input, the general public also is being invited to provide feedback. A meeting is scheduled at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center on July 15 so citizens can learn more about the trail project and provide comments and suggestions to the planners. The city’s Wildland Conservation Division staff has also set up a Web site, http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/water/wildland/walkforaday.htm, to gather public input on the Walk for a Day trail.

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