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County eyes suspending new subdivisions to develop groundwater rules

Friday, September 3, 2010 by Michelle Jimenez

Travis County officials, with an eye toward future population growth, are looking to address issues of groundwater availability, particularly in the western part of the county.


Toward that end, commissioners are considering suspending, through Oct. 31, 2011, approval of new subdivision applications that cite the Trinity Group Aquifers as their source of water. While the suspension is in place, the county would work to develop a permanent policy regarding groundwater availability.


The suspension, which would affect only subdivision platting that is in western Travis County and that is subject to Chapter 82 of the county’s code, could be extended or shortened.


“This regulation does have some relief valves in it,” Anna Bowlin, division director of Development Services, which is part of the county’s Transportation and Natural Resources department, told In Fact Daily this week.


Bowlin said the county could grant an exception for conservation subdivisions or if the applicant can prove the suspension would create an undue and unique hardship. Bowlin said a conservation subdivision is a development that includes in its plan elements of environmental preservation, including a design that includes a rural or nature-oriented lifestyle, open space, protection for sensitive areas, reduced impervious cover, and has the potential to reduce the cost of government services.


Joe Gieselman, executive manager of Transportation and Natural Resources, laid out the proposal for county commissioners in a detailed Aug. 26 memo. Commissioners on Tuesday voted to set an Oct. 12 hearing about the proposal after they discussed it. They did not discuss the proposal in open session.


With the suspension, the county would insert a new section in Chapter 82 of the code that relates to water availability. It would prohibit approving subdivisions using groundwater from the Trinity Group Aquifers, unless a groundwater district is in place and gives permission for the additional groundwater withdrawal, according to the memo.


Gieselman goes on to explain that the code modification would also create a plat note requirement as an enforcement mechanism.


“A plat note would be required to ensure the developer would not be able to get a plat approved based on one source of water supply and then change over to the Trinity after the plat is filed,” he wrote.


Gieselman explained in the memo that the county’s population, currently at about 1 million residents, is expected to reach 1.5 million residents by 2040. The Texas Water Plan projects the annual water usage will increase from 187,037 acre-feet in 2000 – one acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons – to 374,041 acre-feet in 2040.


Surface water sources account for most of the usage, Gieselman explained, but there is a significant amount of groundwater usage, including water drawn from the Trinity Group Aquifers.


Portions of western Travis County that use the Trinity Group Aquifers are already experiencing issues with water availability in part due to the demands of development and in part due to droughts,” Gieselman wrote. “Droughts in the Hill Country are frequent and severe. Since the 1950’s, significant droughts occurred in 1964-65, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2000, and 2007-09. Travis County does not have a permanent policy that deals with groundwater availability in areas with groundwater issues.”


Though parts of western Travis County have been designated as part of a “priority groundwater management area,” a groundwater conservation district has not been created for that area to regulate pumping, among other protective measures such districts take in other parts of the state and region. According to Gieselman’s memo, the executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality released a report last month that recommends the formation of such a district comprised of the Hill Country priority groundwater management areas of southwest Travis County, western Comal County, and western Hays County. A hearing on that recommendation will be held on Oct. 28, according to the memo. (See In Fact Daily, Oct. 22, 2009)


During the 2009 Legislative session, a bill was introduced that would have allowed the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, which controls the groundwater in southern Travis and northern Hays counties, to expand it authority over parts of western Travis County not currently covered by a groundwater district.


The bill, generally supported by the Travis County delegation, did not make it out of the House Natural Resources Committee for a vote by the full Legislature. The aquifer district is weighing its options for resubmitting the bill going into the 2011 Legislature.


The county also plans to study other regulatory models and appoint and solicit feedback from a citizens group that includes a broad range of stakeholders. Those tasks, along with drafting the new policy, could require additional staff, Gieselman said. The stakeholder group could include landowners, developers, homebuilders, water utilities districts, agricultural representatives, environmentalists, technical experts, and other jurisdictions.


The court, over the years, has tried to address water availability issues – a problem other counties in the region have dealt with through regulation changes, as well – through a series of amendments to the development code.

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