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Fish and Wildlife officials nix city’s Barton Springs bypass plan

Tuesday, January 26, 2010 by Michael Kanin

Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have rejected part of an initiative to repair portions of Barton Springs known as Bypass Option 2b. The plan met with trouble when federal officials realized that by installing limestone blocks to stabilize a section of shore, contractors would impinge on the habitat of the endangered Barton Springs Salamander.


City officials hope to move forward with a new concept for the renovation–a repair of the springs bypass culvert—sometime later this year.


“(It) was going to be a big problem for us,” David Johns of Austin’s Watershed Protection Department, told a joint meeting of the city’s Parks and Recreation and Environmental boards. He went on to estimate that, had the city tried to go through with its original plan, it would probably have added another year to the process, which would have been opened up to further public comment. 


“It felt like we needed to step back and rethink what we were trying to do here,” he continued.


The new plan, known as Option 2C, calls for similar improvements, but replaces the limestone with a concrete and steel structure which will be built on the “decking of the bypass.” The effect of such construction, would, according to Johns, raise the height of the deck as many as 8 inches in some places. He later assured attendees that the pool would remain handicapped-accessible.


In addition to shifting designs, the city will consult with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as they continue preliminary work for the project. Johns reported that his department had already sent an initial letter to the Corps, and would expect them to work with both city officials and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as things moved forward.


After an assessment of the new culvert proposal and the gravel removal project—another phase of the Barton Springs renovation—in terms of their respective effects on the salamander population, the service would issue permits so that work could begin. Johns said that he expected this to happen sometime in June.      


Board member Carol Lee expressed some concern about whether that timeline—which she said could create a conflict with potential contractors looking to bid for the project—might present the city with too tight a turnaround in the case that it didn’t receive a permit. Members of Johns’ team assured Lee, however, that because they didn’t expect bidding to begin until around the time the permits were issued, this wouldn’t be a problem. Board member Tom Wilcox suggested that the contract could be contingent on the city’s receipt of approval from the Fish and Wildlife Service.


Johns said that once work began it would take the city about six months to complete it. Because Barton Springs will have to close for an as-yet-undetermined amount of time to allow the renovation to proceed, Johns noted that his team would attempt to aim the shutdown for the Springs’ off-season.


“We are committed to doing everything that we can to keep the pool open,” he said. But Johns won’t know just what that will mean until the city moves further along with its project. All he’ll say for now is that he expects to know more this summer.

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