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Travis County Commissioners approve water use rules for development

Wednesday, February 1, 2012 by Michael Kanin

After a lengthy process, the Travis County Commissioners Court Tuesday finally approved a set of permanent water-use regulations for future developments platted in the unincorporated regions of the jurisdiction. The rules, which commissioners hope will help control the consumption of water in a dry, growing region, go into effect immediately.


In a statement issued after the court unanimously approved the changes, Pct. 3 Commissioner Karen Huber cast the effort as a conservation measure. “These new rules will go a long way in ensuring that residents in new developments have long-term access to the most basic of human needs – water,” she said. “Travis County has waited decades for better groundwater management, and I am most appreciative of the challenging and historic work done by the stakeholder committee and Travis County staff in writing these rules.”


The second half of Huber’s statement was a clear reference to the county’s struggles in obtaining groundwater protection through state legislation. Still, Rep. Paul Workman (R-Austin) had urged the court to hold off on its action, pending his effort to pass a groundwater district for the region at the start of the 2013 legislative session. Commissioners were skeptical of that effort.


The new rules will be applied through Travis County’s subdivision regulations. Developers who submit applications for a new project that runs over five lots will now have to meet tougher water use requirements. These include a stipulation for a water supply plan that will, according to Huber’s statement, “require…demonstrating an adequate long-term source of water for homeowners in a subdivision” and that all new subdivisions come with what Huber calls “sufficient water storage, distribution lines, and hydrants to fight fires.”


In addition, the new regulations light a path for the county to collect information about groundwater use in the region. That will eventually produce a map of all of the so-called straws that dip into the area’s aquifers.


Though stakeholders met for months in an attempt to reach a consensus on the new rules, two major areas of contention remained. The first found development interests arguing against new limits on the construction of amenity ponds – water features constructed for mere aesthetic value. The second had that community pushing the court to remove restrictions on the size of a lot and its allotment of impervious cover, even if the new project in question relies on surface water.


The Real Estate Council of Austin’s Director of Regional Outreach Nancy McDonald addressed the court on Tuesday. “We’ve come to a lot of good consensus,” she said. “(However,) we still remain opposed to the surface water section.”


The county’s Director of Development Services, Anna Bowlin told commissioners that she favored leaving the regulations as they were.


“We stand by our recommendation,” she said.  The court agreed.


In his presentation, the head of the County’s Transportation and Natural Resources Department, Steve Manilla, also made a passing reference to questions raised about the county’s legal ability to apply the new regulations (See In Fact Daily, Jan. 25, 2012). Though commissioners did not directly address any of these before they voted to approve the rules, their unanimous consent signaled their collective belief that they were acting with appropriate authority.


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

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