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Travis County sends groundwater rules back for more public input

Monday, November 21, 2011 by Michael Kanin

Travis County Commissioners Court will pursue another round of informal public input, a possible work session, and a public hearing before it acts on permanent restrictions on development in its jurisdiction that relies on groundwater. If the schedule holds, the public hearing could come sometime in mid-December.


Though county staff charged with ushering the regulations through the process had hoped to get the court to comment on a list of potential addenda and changes to the rules, court members weren’t quite ready to weigh in. “I thought that you would be coming back after discussions with stakeholders…supposedly having arrived at consensus,” suggested Pct. 3 Commissioner Karen Huber.


That was clearly not the case. On Tuesday, staff presented the court with a host of questions and options—some conflicting—for changes in the proposed rules. These included whether small subdivisions should be exempted from groundwater restrictions, whether the county should require some form of accounting for wells on adjacent properties, who should be responsible for monitoring and reporting water levels in a subdivision, and whether the size of a lot should be restricted to less than one acre in the western portion of the county if a subdivision relies on surface water.


County Judge Sam Biscoe echoed Huber’s concerns. “I think I agree with Commissioner Huber,” he said. “I’m not sure we’re in a position to give you specific direction at this point.”


Biscoe suggested that staff talk with members of the committee that reviewed the groundwater situation in Travis County and other stakeholders before coming back to the court.


The head of the county’s Transportation and Natural Resources department, Steve Manilla, asked the court if it would at least eliminate potential options that it was not interested in pursuing. The court declined his invitation. “I don’t know that I can really give you an informed opinion,” said Biscoe. “And coin-flipping in public is not good.”


Pct. 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt worried that more meetings would not necessarily provide complete outreach. “We really, I believe…need some public outreach expertise,” she said. “Otherwise, the draft will be written by whoever shows up and speaks most often.”


Manilla suggested that the county had already considered its targets. “We weren’t proposing to bring everyone from all sides in at the same time,” he said. “This is meeting with individual groups and finding out what they really feel strongly about.”


This seemed to satisfy Eckhardt.


Staff told the court that the process could put the county up against the Jan. 31 expiration of a temporary development suspension designed to bridge Travis to the permanent solution. “We will need every bit of that (time),” said Anna Bowlin, Travis County’s director of development services.


The court’s debate took place under the shadow of questions raised by state legislators about its authority to execute the potential new rules (See In Fact Daily, Nov. 8, 2011).

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