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Travis County postpones adoption of groundwater regulations

Wednesday, October 26, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

Travis County has erred on the side of caution in setting out groundwater regulations for county development, looking to other counties for guidance.


That’s not unusual for the county when it comes to environmental regulations. Travis County typically has been cautious. While the county could claim authority for groundwater regulations under its authority for subdivisions, it’s been hesitant to move to tighter guidelines. On Tuesday, in fact, the county extended interim groundwater rules for another 90 days, to the end of the current year.


Drought levels, however, have left Travis County in the dark about water availability in the county and, in turn, whether subdivisions should be approved with any confidence that a ready source of water is available.


“We don’t know every straw out there,” Environmental Program Manager Tom Weber said during his presentation to the court.


Pct. 3 Commissioner Karen Huber could think of one subdivision in western Travis County where two-thirds of the wells aren’t registered. And Pct. 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt noted it wasn’t just Western Travis County. A well in Tarrytown was just as likely not to be registered as one in western Travis County, Eckhardt said.


New regulations, however, would apply to a limited area of the county, those lots that are outside Austin and its extra-territorial jurisdiction, as well as those outside incorporated areas, said Program Manager Anna Bowlin. The proposed guidelines, which apply to subdivisions, also would not apply to lots that have legal lot status or those within the subdivision exemption process.


New guidelines for subdivisions, which apply to those wells using Trinity or Edwards aquifers’ groundwater, would require certification of a 30-year groundwater supply. That supply would have to be verified with a walking survey, landowner interviews and GPS coordinates for all existing wells. The county did offer an exemption for uncooperative adjacent landowners.


The county has yet to decide on some of the suggestions, such as exempting subdivisions of less than 10 acres. The logic behind that suggestion, Bowlin said, was the expense that water studies would cost in such a small area.


Additional guidelines would require GPS coordinates of wells and lots in the subdivision, which would mirror guidelines set out in Hays County, Bowlin said. Those who intend to use groundwater would have to provide regular monitoring and data to Travis County, which may require posting fiscal security for such a system. Developers post fiscal security for other types of utilities.


What the county wants to do is different from what is monitored by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Tom Weber noted in his presentation. TCEQ cares about the certification of public wells. It does not care about the overall groundwater levels. The work of the county and TCEQ will not be duplicative, Weber said.


Under the guidelines, developers would have to provide a contingency plan that provides an alternative water supply, including 2,500 gallons of storage capacity for each storage unit. That could be adjusted, based on unit size. This, too, would be similar to the requirements already set out by Hays County.


And, as Hays County regulations note, a county should have a clear idea of which entity provides a water source to a particular lot. Bowlin conceded that developers would have to describe which source would have to be used when a supply is limited, which County Assistant Attorney Tom Nuckols noted was not an unusual situation given the current drought situation.


Additional requirements include water flow and hydrant location and spacing requirements for fire flow for subdivisions for outlying areas. Nuckols said the limits were developed in consultation with the county fire marshal’s office. The international fire code could be applied to that proposed section of code.


Lots are limited to no smaller than one acre over the Trinity Aquifer’s Western Watershed or the Edwards Aquifer Recharge of Contributing Zone, which Bowlin said was limited but would protect groundwater quality. Discussion ensued whether the lot size was a positive or a negative. Eckhardt suggested an asterisk should be added for topics that were debatable.


East Austin subdivisions cannot access the Colorado River aquifer as a water source. That’s fully utilized. The developer must consider other alternatives. In addition, flag lots are prohibited, with potential administrative variance. The commissioners can grant other variances, based on circumstance.


County commissioners are not expected to consider a permanent solution before the end of November.

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