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County studies cost, liability to provide water for subdivision residents

Wednesday, November 2, 2011 by Michael Kanin

It will cost Travis County between $45,000 and $75,000 in initial costs to provide potable water from a standpipe at its Pct. 4 satellite office. The pipe serves residents of the Las Lomitas subdivision, among others.


Should the county elect to pursue that route, that figure would cover upgrades to the pipe, licensure, and review by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). It would continue to cost the county roughly $5,000 a year in maintenance to provide potable water at that facility.


That news came as Travis County Commissioners continued to work with county residents and staff to address concerns that shutting off the pipe would cut the only source of water for an unknown number of residents living along US 183 in the southern portion of the county. On Tuesday, commissioners set hours for use of the pipe and moved to begin collecting information about its users.


Closing the Pct. 4 pipe was initially thought to be a routine housekeeping measure that would have ended the use of Travis County’s largely abandoned water distribution system. However, the issue became a concern when area residents told the court that they still rely on the pipe as their sole source of running water.


Faced with potential TCEQ sanctions if they left the pipe as-is – the original reason behind the attempt to shut it down – the court placed a guard on duty and posted signs indicating that water from the pipe was not potable.


This week’s action introduced a questionnaire that all users of the facility will have to fill out. The county hopes to use the form to collect more information about standpipe frequenters.


County Judge Sam Biscoe suggested that staff collect water consumption statistics as well. “It seems to me that the more people that we know have been drinking this water, in my view, the greater the need for us to put in place a potable water temporary solution,” he suggested.


This brought some worry from Assistant County Attorney Tom Nuckols. Though Biscoe was careful to imply that the court should, for liability reasons, only ask if users drank the water in the past, Nuckols was more firm. “The question might be ‘are you choosing to endanger your own health by ignoring our advice not to drink this water—we’re just curious if you’re doing that,” he said.


Court concerns about commercial users of the pipe also surfaced as debate continued. Pct. 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt suggested that the court cap the amount of water that users could take at a household-friendly figure. The county’s manager of Transportation and Natural Resources Steve Manilla suggested that this would be problematic, which brought a call for a flat fee from Eckhardt.


Biscoe, however, suggested that the court “owed” county tax payers separate rates. “I don’t mind keeping it low for residential, but I think it ought to be higher for commercial,” he continued.


When Eckhardt suggested that users would all “just claim residential rates,” the judge further argued that information gleaned from the questionnaire could serve to weed out commercial users. “That’s why you ask for the address,” Biscoe said. “We ask for the address not only of the person picking up the water, but we ask where it’s used. They may be different answers to that.”


Biscoe turned back to the larger issue. “In order for us to work to a permanent solution, this is basic information that we would need for ourselves,” he said.

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