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Report: City needs more than $1 billion to fix watershed problems

Friday, February 25, 2011 by Mark Richardson

Urban watersheds in Austin are in crisis and the city will need to spend more than $1.2 billion over the next four decades to resolve the problems, according to a recent report by the city’s Watershed Protection Department.


The banks and streams of many of the city’s creeks and waterways are deteriorating, according to Jean Drew with Watershed Protection, who reviewed that department’s Master Plan for the city’s watersheds with the Environmental Board this month. The report, a technical assessment of the waterways’ condition, looks at a variety of solutions to problems such as flooding, bank erosion, and deteriorating water quality.


However, Drew said, projected budget constraints could prevent the department from completing the proposed projects to repair the watershed.


“Watershed problems are pervasive and they are expected to worsen,” Drew said. “Capital solutions were identified in the range of about $1.2 billion over a 40-year time frame. A number of programs and regulations are essential to address the problems we identified. However, goal attainment is severely restricted due to a shortage of resources.”


Drew said the Watershed Department’s Master Plan is being done in two phases.  Phase 1, which has been completed, studied the watersheds and their problems, outlining the findings and making recommendations for solutions. Phase 2, currently under way, is the implementation phase, which tracks the city’s progress in resolving the problems.


“We looked at flooding, erosion and water quality missions through 12 of the Phase 1 watersheds, including three of the suburban watersheds – Walnut Creek, Williamson Creek, and Onion Creek Country Club — and then two of the water supply watersheds, Barton Creek and Bull Creek,” Drew said.


Problems identified in the Phase 1 study include creek flooding, localized flooding, stream-bank erosion, and water quality degradation. The study reported that creek flooding poses a recurring risk to public safety and property in the city and that a two-year storm could create structure flooding in 14 of the 17 Phase I watersheds.


“Localized flooding is a threat all over the city,” Drew said. “We have had more than 4,800 complaints over the last few years. Improvement is most needed in the urban watershed due to a lack of storm drains, or ones that are undersized, clogged, or deteriorated. These problems related directly to our aging infrastructure.”


Drew said the Phase 1 study also found more than 1,000 erosion sites that are the cause of numerous threats to property and infrastructure around the city.  She also cited the degradation of urban streams and creeks, many of which have lost their natural base flow and have seen an increase in pollution.


“To solve the problem, it will take a combination of capital projects, programs, and regulations,” Drew said.


She said Phase 2 of the Master Plan estimates the department’s long-term capital needs at $500 million for creek flooding, $300 million or more for storm drains, $150 million or more for bank stabilization projects, and $250 million or more for water quality issues.


“These projects (included in the $1.2 billion) represent only the high-priority watershed problems,” Drew said. “There might be other areas of the city that have problems that have not yet been brought to our attention.”


She said Watershed Protection has developed a mission-integration process to evaluate capital projects by both feasibility and their ability to be implemented. She said the department uses the process to maximize project benefits and to make sure that changing something in one place does not affect something else downstream.


Drew said Phase 2 of the Master Plan projects the need for more funds than are currently available to do the job.


“We have identified a capital project need of about $30 million a year over the next 40 years,” she said. “Right now, our CIP transfer is about $21 million a year, which means we’re still falling short on that need for both capital projects and in our operating budget.”


The Watershed Protection Department will soon report its findings to the City Council, which will be tasked with finding a way to fund the department’s Master Plan for the city’s watersheds.

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