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Aquifer district staff critical of SH45 SW environmental study

Tuesday, July 29, 2014 by Alex Dropkin

The staff of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District is expressing strong doubts about the science and data behind a proposed environmental impact statement for State Highway 45 Southwest. In their review, district staff calls the information in the draft document “incomplete and deficient,” and recommend that state officials go back to the drawing board to complete the project. The district is still considering its official position.

The City of Austin sent a letter last week asking the Texas Department of Transportation to withdraw its current draft of the SH45 SW environmental impact statement and suspend its technical review. City Manager Marc Ott cited “pending critical environmental studies” which the city believes must be considered in the evaluation of the impact the road would have on the environment. (See Austin Monitor, July 28, 2014.)

After enumerating reasons for suspending its review, Ott wrote, “Whether or not TxDOT feels it can withdraw the (draft study) and suspend technical review, I urge you to consider at the very least expanding the public comment period…The current time provided for public comment is the minimum required by law. We can and should provide more time for the public to consider the document and provide input.” TxDOT spokeswoman Kelli Reyna told the Monitor, “TxDOT has received the City Manager’s letter, and we intend to seriously consider his comments and formally respond to them. Our goal in this case and all others is helping local communities devise strategic transportation priorities that deliver projects with the greatest stewardship for the environment and tax dollars. We look forward to engaging with the community this week on this issue and moving ahead to address congestion in this area.”

Aquifer district board members met last week to review their staff’s observations on the statement in preparation for a meeting tonight to provide oral comments on the draft. District staff raised questions over inconsistent wells and pumping data, as well as an incomplete geological assessment. They also had reservations about the draft’s sections on controlling runoff during both construction and use, the state’s monitoring plan, and plans for the assessment and protection of karst features.

A major concern for the aquifer district is that there is no mention in the draft EIS of a 1990 consent decree between the district and TxDOT outlining development restrictions over land in the aquifer district’s jurisdiction. The proposed path of SH45 SW lies entirely within the district’s purview.

“We’re not suggesting a position one way or another, we’re just suggesting that there’s more information that we’d really like to see,” General Manager John Dupnik said during the meeting.

The roadway project has been the subject of a pitched battle for almost 30 years since it was proposed as part of the planned State Highway 45 Loop (which has never been completed) in 1986.

Some residents in South Austin and northern Hays County say delays in building the road have caused massive traffic problems, while environmental groups claim the road is planned over some of the most sensitive parts of the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer. The aquifer is the primary source of drinking water for more than 60,000 district residents.

Proponents of the roadway have made a major push in the last year to get construction started, taking advantage of a changing political climate in the region. State officials have shifted federal funds away from SH45 SW to other projects to avoid having to do an EIS under more stringent federal standards.

TxDOT and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority are holding a public hearing on the EIS draft at Bowie High School in South Austin beginning with an open house at 5 p.m. tonight. The aquifer district – like everyone else – will have three minutes to speak at the hearing.

“When people leave that room, are (they) going to think the district is trying to stop 45 or is the district doing a good scientific review of this?” Board Member Mary Stone asked in response to the district’s review. “I don’t want to open up the Statesman and have it say ‘Barton Springs is opposing 45’ or ‘is promoting 45.'”

“I just want to make sure that the comments are in a way that represents the district, which is, we speak to the water,” Stone added.

Many local agencies have scrutinized the draft statement, which has been available to the public for more than a month, for its perceived inadequacies. The Save Our Springs Alliance referred to the draft as having “egregious shortcomings,” while the City of Austin recently urged TxDOT to withdraw the draft entirely.

Board President Bob Larsen called the city’s actions a “political cop-out,” adding, “It is very easy to say, ‘just withdraw it.'”

The proposed roadway would extend between MoPac Boulevard and FM1626, about a four-mile stretch, and is in response to a projected 86 percent population growth in northern Hays County and southern Travis County. However, environmental groups such as SOS and the Sierra Club have long opposed the proposed tollway, saying the construction of the road and subsequent traffic would disturb fragile karst features over the aquifer’s recharge zone, as well as pollute the water.

“We’d like to see some commitment to long-term monitoring…and we didn’t see much of that in there,” Dupnik said.

The district’s staff brought up inaccuracies in the EIS’ well count – 38 in the assessment versus the district’s reported 150 — and inaccurate pumping numbers, as well as no mention of mid-construction or post-construction water monitoring within the plan.

“We feel like we should reserve judgment and request that TxDOT complete the work that’s ongoing, fill some of these data gaps and maybe reevaluate some of the findings and conclusions in light of this data,” Dupnik said, “because I’m not sure that they had everything needed to be able to conclusively state the findings that were in the document.”

The formal comment period on the draft ends Aug. 13, and because the aquifer district’s board does not meet again until the day after, board members may have another meeting Aug. 7 to discuss written comments on the draft that the staff will submit to TxDOT, if needed.

TxDOT expects to make a decision on whether or not to build the highway, based upon a completed EIS, by early 2015.

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