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Travis County adopts comprehensive water-quality protections

Wednesday, August 15, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

Travis County Commissioners on Tuesday moved to impose comprehensive water-quality protections, new regulations effective immediately that aim to reduce pollution by regulating certain construction sites and businesses. 


Commissioners unanimously approved the comprehensive regulations, which replace a set interim water quality requirements that have been in place since 2005.


“Regulation is always a burden, to some degree, for the private sector,” said Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt. “I’m happy to say the commissioners court and the county has a reputation of being very cautious and deliberative and transparent. But now is the time for us to take some pretty bold moves, lest we, quite literally, foul our own well.”


The new regulations are designed to accomplish several things to maintain the quality of the county’s water sources. They set controls for construction sites that disturb more than one acre of land, require management of storm water runoff in developments, eliminate pollutant discharge from industrial and commercial businesses and reduce pollutants from road construction. The new regulations also establish enforcement policies to address violations of any of the new rules.


The county’s new regulations will not apply the extra-territorial jurisdictions of cities, including Austin; the City of Austin already enforces its own set of water-quality protections within its boundary.


While Save Barton Creek Association‘s Jon Beall spoke in support of the regulations, he also said they could be stronger.


“We do believe they should be applied throughout Travis County, including the (extra-territorial jurisdictions) of the various municipalities. Exempting (extra-territorial jurisdictions) would create an even larger loophole that large projects could drive through,” said Beall.


Beall pointed to recent, controversial developments in the Austin extra-territorial jurisdiction, saying, “When I think of the three biggest projects that we have been debating for several years here, they are Formula 1, TXI Gravel Mine and the landfills issue.”


Tom Weber, environmental quality program manager for Travis County’s Natural Resource and Environmental Quality program, said that while the rules would be effective starting today, he expected that there would be “a good amount of time to get things up and running.” Webber anticipated revamping the development process would be the greatest challenge. He said the county will most likely need to hire additional review staff to monitor projects.


Weber said that they tried to develop requirements that would have the “flexibility to have different implementation” where the county overlaps with extra-territorial jurisdictions of municipalities. “Each city in this county has a different, I’d say personality, a different culture, a different set of requirements,” said Weber.


“To some extent, it’s unpredictable as to what a municipality will do in the future, so we therefore think it’s important we make sure that gap is closed and we have independent environmental quality standards that will benefit the public and the county.”


Eckhardt noted the approved regulations were only a first step, as the county will need to work closely with Austin, the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) and other jurisdictions as they update their regulations.


“This is an ongoing effort. We’re not done. We’re done for now. I would ask that staff come back after conferring with the city of Austin and LCRA with a schedule for when we will take this up again,” Eckhardt said.


The City of Austin has been engaged in revising its own water-quality rules since January 2011, an effort that remains in the stakeholder process. Matt Hollon, environmental program manager with the City of Austin’s Watershed Protection Department, told the commissioners that the city hopes to have new rules by next spring.


In a follow-up email to In Fact Daily, Hollon wrote that while the city was able under state law to regulate some things that the county could not, such as impervious cover, the county’s new regulations now put more protective headwater stream buffers in place, particularly in the eastern watersheds of the county.


“Like Travis County, we believe these buffers should extend upstream to 64 acres of drainage,” Hollon wrote. “If and when the City of Austin Watershed Protection Ordinance is passed, we will then have the same buffers as Travis County just approved and these buffers will extend in the east to the same drainage threshold as they do in the west.”

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