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County may sponsor water supply forum to guide planning efforts

Wednesday, September 19, 2012 by Michael Kanin

Officials with Travis County‘s Transportation and Natural Resources Department are working on a comprehensive plan that would guide how the county approaches development and land use in the unincorporated regions of its jurisdiction.


Steve Manilla, the head of department, asked a short-staffed Commissioners Court on Tuesday to approve the staging of a Water Supply Forum to better inform the county’s efforts on the project, called the Land, Water and Transportation Plan, which has been under way for a year or two.


With County Judge Sam Biscoe and Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt in China on county business, Commissioner Ron Davis asked his colleagues to wait a week to give their blessing to the forum.


Though Davis insisted that he wasn’t trying to “push back” against the idea of a forum, he seemed interested in expanding on what was proposed by staff. That includes such issues as escalating water rates and whatever might happen at the state Legislature when it meets in January.


He called for a holistic approach to water issues in the county and predicted that some water rates “are going to be off the charts.”


Commissioner Karen Huber pointed out that the forum was simply a discussion among interested parties. “I don’t want this to get blown out of proportion,” she said. “It is a brain-storming session.”


According to materials provided by Manilla’s department, experts would identify specific ways that the county could “encourage and facilitate stewardship and the wise use of our water resources.” The panel would look at these questions with an eye toward both existing and new developments.


Manilla’s department offered a list of 13 potential areas of interest, including: subdivision development standards, the use of development rules to offer protection for the county’s sources of surface water and the “proliferation and reliability” of groundwater wells.


The City of Austin recently took action to require the registration of groundwater wells within the city limits (see In Fact Daily, Aug. 22, 2012).


The county has also recently engaged in an effort to control groundwater use in portions of its jurisdiction through its platting process. County officials have indicated that they believe that the action is within their authority (see In Fact Daily, Feb. 1, 2012).


However, state law significantly limits how a county can enforce land-use restrictions. Indeed, any such effort by the county would be hamstrung. Manilla added that the commissioners could find a place for themselves to influence the distribution and management of the county’s water supply.


Manilla suggested that each commissioner appoint three members to the forum. Commissioner Karen Huber asked Manilla to come up with a list of appropriate types of stakeholders.


Manilla predicted that, with the benefit of input from stakeholders at the water form, the Land, Water and Transportation Plan would be complete by late next year.

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