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Council finally OKs West Lake sewer extension on 5-2 vote

Friday, May 25, 2012 by Michael Kanin

The City of Austin and the City of West Lake Hills will negotiate an amendment to a controversial wastewater agreement that would, upon completion, allow for the development of two West Lake Hills commercial properties. The move comes after two delays the featured concerns from various Austin City Council members about the idea.


Indeed, both of the Austin advisory bodies that reviewed the changes to the agreement – the city’s Environmental Board and its Water and Wastewater Commission – declined to recommend it. Though the item stayed on the City Council’s Thursday consent agenda, Council members Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo voted against it. With the remainder of the Council for the idea, it passed on a 5-2 vote.


The agreement in question is a 13-year old deal that provides a limited amount of Austin Water Utility wastewater service to West Lake Hills. The original intent of the deal was to provide a means for West lake residents to replace aging septic systems, should they experience a septic failure.


In January, 2012 West Lake Hills Mayor Dave Claunch wrote Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell a memo that detailed a request to extend the sewer line to what have been referred to as the last commercial lots in West Lake Hills. “(I)t would be much better for the two properties…to connect to our wastewater system rather than being served by on-site septic systems, especially since the properties are located in the Contributing Zone for the Edward’s Aquifer, and the City of Austin’s Water Quality Protection Zone,” he wrote.


The properties in question are expected to be an assisted living facility and an office building. Claunch seemed happy with the result. “We appreciate Austin’s willingness to work with us on this issue,” he told In Fact Daily after the vote.


Around the same time, Austin Water Utility director Greg Meszaros told the Water and Wastewater Commission that commercial development wasn’t the original intent of the agreement. Meszaros cited two concerns, that centralized sewer lines could bring more intense development to the area and that any amount of sewage capacity allotted to commercial use takes away from the original purpose of the agreement – relief of failing septic systems. (See In Fact Daily, Jan. 12, 2012.)


In a January email to In Fact Daily, Claunch defended his position. Several people commented that they believed that approving this contract change would reduce the amount of capacity that is available for residential customers to join the system at a later date when their septic systems reach end-of-life,” he wrote. “(Austin Water staff member) Bart Jennings explained that our contract caps the available capacity at 800 gallons per minute and he estimated that we are currently using 350 gallons per minute. Nobody made the next obvious statement: that leaves more than half of the capacity available for future growth.” (See In Fact Daily, Jan. 20, 2012.)


The deal was debated with some vigor when it was originally approved in 1999, but neither Morrison or Tovo commented from the dais about their ‘no’ votes.


Asked to explain her vote, Morrison told In Fact Daily via email, “I agree with the Water and Wastewater Commission and the Environmental Board that …(this) wastewater extension would compromise the integrity of the original agreement. There wasn’t sufficient cause to renegotiate the terms of the deal made in 2001.”


Tovo responded to a request for comment via email also, saying, “The request from West Lake Hills to amend the wholesale wastewater service agreement to serve new commercial development contradicts the intent of the original agreement, which sought to protect the sensitive watersheds in the area near Rollingwood while seeking to remedy inadequate septic systems on residential lots of less than one acre.


“Neither the Water and Wastewater Board nor the Environmental Board supported the recommendation to amend the agreement, and City staff also recommended against the amendment. The request contradicts former council action on this issue, and I don’t believe the amendment is in the City of Austin’s best interest,” she said.

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