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Travis County Commissioners near completion of water-use restrictions

Wednesday, January 25, 2012 by Michael Kanin

The Travis County Commissioners’ Court will vote next Tuesday on a controversial set of groundwater rules that could limit development in the county. However, some in the local development community wonder whether the court has the authority to enforce the new rules.


Tuesday, the court took input from a host of stakeholders concerned about the potential new ordinance. True to a promise from the county’s director of development services, Anna Bowlin, commissioners heard from “some who feel it’s too strict, and some (who feel) it’s not strict enough.”


If approved, the regulations would replace a moratorium on development first enacted by the county in October 2010. Since then, county staff has been engaged in a lengthy and often contentious process to settle on permanent rules. It involved public input, outreach from county staff, and vetting by a committee of various county stakeholders representing a cross-section of county interests.


Though it has yet to be awarded any state protective status, some Travis County residents argue that the county is ripe for some sort of water regulation. The skepticism of commissioners that any relief can be expected from the Capitol is reflected in their efforts to impose their own water-use restrictions.


These rules would, in part, limit new development intensity over the Trinity and Edwards aquifers, limit the density of new projects, and limit certain water uses in features such as amenity pools. They would also mandate the creation of a map of all of the existing water wells in the area.


As he has before, State Rep. Paul Workman (R-Austin) came to court to argue that he was readying a bill that would bring a Groundwater Conservation District to the currently uncovered portions of the county. He asked that the commissioners wait until that action.


Though commissioners have expressed doubt that such a district will be created (See In Fact Daily, Sept. 21, 2011), they largely refrained from questioning Workman.


Despite much in the way of consensus from stakeholders, a dispute over whether the county should impose impervious cover limitations on developments using surface water broke along predictable lines. Hamilton Pool Road Scenic Corridor Coalition member Gene Lowenthal said that he felt that much of the responsibility for correcting water rules lay at the feet of the state legislature. He added that his group supports impervious cover restrictions.


“The bottom line is this: In the absence of responsible stewardship at the state level, we need to do what we can locally,” he said. “We strongly support the proposed…rules and request that they be enacted — including, by the way, impervious cover limits on surface subdivisions.”


Engineer Hank Smith questioned the impervious cover limits, which would be set at 30 percent for residential properties and 45 percent for commercial efforts. “This is the one that has got the most discussion and probably had the most disagreement on what we’re doing here – whether or not the county has the ability to impose an impervious cover limitation on surface water use,” he said. “This is a particular part of (these rules) that is very controversial. If there’s something that’s going to lead to a law suit in the development community, this would be the area that would do that.”


Smith’s implication hung over the hearing as other members of the public – mostly from the development community – questioned the county’s authority to enforce the regulations. Their argument was based on the narrow regulatory powers assigned to counties by the state.


Pct. 3 Commissioner Karen Huber, who has pushed for the regulations and the moratorium, told In Fact Daily that she had no concerns over the legality of the court’s effort. “We’re not really doing anything new that hasn’t already been done,” she said. “We feel that we have the legal basis from looking at what we’re looking at.”


County Judge Sam Biscoe agreed. “We are advised by our lawyers that we do” have the legal authority to enforce the regulations “in words that are convincing,” he told In Fact Daily. “I have no reason to think otherwise.”

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