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Austin wins nearly $12 million in federal funds for Onion Creek

Thursday, March 6, 2014 by Mark Richardson

The City of Austin will receive $11.8 million in federal funding for the Onion Creek – Lower Colorado River Basin Project now that Congress finally loosened its purse strings and approved spending the money.


The funds – which will be used to buy out properties and relocate displaced families from the Onion Creek flood plain in Austin and Travis County – have been authorized since 2007 but this week were finally included in the Obama Administration’s blueprint for the 2015 budget.


In 1998, the city began working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to address a chronic flooding problem along Onion Creek in southeast Austin. That year, Congressman Lloyd Doggett obtained funding for the Corps of Engineers to do a study of the area, and has made requests for Onion Creek funding in every subsequent session of Congress.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell’s office received word Tuesday afternoon that the funds would be included in next year’s budget.


“This project has been a passion of mine since I served on the City of Austin’s Environmental Board, beginning in 1999,” Leffingwell said in a prepared statement. “We will be able to help a lot of families with this money and these additional federal funds bring us one step closer to a safer Austin.”


After years of inaction, the Corps of Engineers received permission from Congress earlier this year to proceed with several new civil works projects among hundreds of pending projects nationwide. Corps of Engineers officials announced Tuesday that they had chosen three projects, including the Onion Creek – Lower Colorado Basin Project.


Leffingwell began working on the Onion Creek project even before he was an elected official in Austin. He began working on it as an Environmental Board member, then as a Council member and now as Mayor, speaking to members of Congress, senior members of the Corps of Engineers, and as recently as January 2014, senior White House officials.


Doggett said that it was gratifying that all the work has finally paid off.


“After almost two decades of working on this, we finally have some results,” he said. “After such tough times for so many in Dove Springs and others along Onion Creek, I hope this means that more of our neighbors will finally get an answer to whether they move or repair.”


Elston Eckhardt, the chief of the civil branch at the Corps of Engineers’ Fort Worth office, said the Onion Creek project was on hold for several years as Congress failed to pass budgets and forced the Corps of Engineers to halt all new construction projects.


“This money is not directly related to the October floods in the Austin area, but the additional damage made it clear that action was needed,” he said. “That was an important element in the Corps choosing to fund the Austin area project.”


On Halloween night last year, a flash flood on Onion Creek flooded 1,100 homes, killed four people, and caused an estimated $100 million in damage. (See Austin Monitor, Feb. 28)


Eckhardt said now that the program has been approved by the Corps of Engineers, more money – possibly another $4 million next year – should be available in future years.


“Once a program makes it on the books, it tends to continue until it is completed,” he said, adding that, “Of course, nothing is etched in stone.” 


Eckhardt said the next step is to negotiate an agreement among the Corps of Engineers, Austin and Travis County that defines the responsibilities of all the parties. He expects that to be completed in August, after which the money can be spent.


Prior to Tuesday’s announcement, the city had spent more than $36 million on the project. This included relocating more than 300 households and developing a plan to restore Onion Creek to its natural habitat. In 2006, Austin voters approved $28 million in bond money to support the project and the City of Austin received a $7.8 million federal Hazard Mitigation Grant, which was used to buy out 114 properties.

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