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Travis considering development moratorium over Trinity Aquifer

Wednesday, October 13, 2010 by Michael Kanin

The Travis County Commissioners Court has begun to consider an amendment to county code that would temporarily halt some development in the western portion of its jurisdiction. The move, a moratorium on plat approval for any projects that would draw well water from the Trinity Aquifer, is designed to serve as a conservation measure in a portion of the county that is seeing rapid growth.

Here, the direct issue is what Precinct 3 Commissioner Karen Huber might see as the virtually unchecked consumption of water from a supply that can be fickle. “You pointed out early in your testimony that the Trinity Aquifer is unique in that you may have a pocket of water…that is fruitful and has demonstrated some sustainability,” even as others in the area have not, she told engineer Hank Smith. “I would argue that is just exactly the reason we need to look at (this).”


At a public hearing held Tuesday, members of the community spoke in favor of the rule change. Caught in the middle is the developer of the West Cypress Hills subdivision, who came to ask the court to not include his project in the moratorium.

Smith is the district engineer for the water district that serves the West Cypress Hills project. He argued that, should the court decide to impose a moratorium, the development would need to be exempted. “Our district is relying on the future growth in order to pay for itself,” he said. “We have sold bonds for our district and if we cannot continue to grow and develop…the existing homes…cannot support the infrastructure that we put in place. That district would go bankrupt.”


Gene Lowenthal, president of a Hamilton Pool Road area neighborhood association, said that he and his fellow residents need the court’s help. “We should have had a groundwater conservation district many, many, many years ago,” he said. “Yet we in the community who depend upon well water for daily essentials are still unprotected. “

Alan Topfer represented the development group that runs the West Cypress Hills subdivision before the court. He said that the language of the proposed change was unclear. “I can’t…say whether I’m for or against the moratorium because it’s so ambiguous,” he said.


He also noted that the development team would work to put at least a portion of West Cypress Hills on surface water. He said that this could come from the Lower Colorado River Authority or the City of Briarcliff.


Topfer is a managing director at local real estate investment firm Castletop Capital.


Huber praised Topfer and Smith for working with the county to come up with some sort of solution. Though she stuck to her guns about the moratorium, she promised that West Cypress Hills would be allowed to continue its development.


“I believe that any subdivision that’s already out there under construction should be grandfathered,” she said.


Huber, who represents southwest Travis County, told In Fact Daily that Topfer’s project was, to her knowledge, the only project in the affected area.


Because this portion of the county has no groundwater conservation district, regulatory authorities have little ability to enforce restrictions. The proposed code change would allow the court to hold final plat approval for any project that relies on Trinity water.

Engineer John Dupnik, an official with the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, detailed the bleak side of things. “This part of Travis County was included in the Hill Country Priority Groundwater Management Area, which was designated in 1990,” he said. “What that means is that…(the area) is experiencing or is expected to experience critical groundwater supply shortages within the next 25 years.”


The designation is also often the first step toward the establishment of a groundwater conservation district.


After the hearing, Huber explained the importance of the proposal to In Fact Daily. “It’s been 20 years since southwestern Travis County was identified…as a Priority Groundwater Management Area by the legislature,” she said. “Of the seven counties in that proposed (designated area), all of them—except for southwestern Travis County and southern Hays—have groundwater districts,” she said. “We have been experiencing high growth…we cannot wait years and years more to do something.”


The court appears likely to vote on the rule change next week. In the meantime, Assistant County Attorney Tom Nuckols is working with some of the language in the code change.


If enacted, the length of time that the amendment would be in effect would be somewhat flexible. As Huber said during the hearing, “it’s just an interim rule that could be shortened or lengthened as we look…at the stakeholder process.”


There was much discussion about a possible conservation district for the area during the hearing. For her part, Huber was skeptical about that prospect. “We have tried to go to the legislature for the groundwater district,” she said. “We have not received the kind of support that we would like to have enjoyed from the real estate community to get the…(district) in place with the appropriate structure.”

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