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Few changes as aquifer board OKs SH45 SW comments

Friday, August 15, 2014 by Alex Dropkin

The Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District board approved its staff’s written comments on the State Highway 45 Southwest draft Environmental Impact Statement on Tuesday night amid heated discussion over the district’s role in future iterations of the project.

Though the district approved only two minor changes to the comments during the meeting, which was specially called in response to Texas Department of Transportation’s August 13 public comment submission deadline, board members went back and forth over how much to trust TxDOT going forward.

“That may be the last time that we get to talk to them,” board member Craig Smith said to district general manager John Dupnik during the meeting. “What if they say, ‘(The public commenting period) was your opportunity. You had your opportunity.'”

He described trusting TxDOT to make the right decisions for the aquifer as a “leap of faith.”

Smith’s fear, that TxDOT will have unchecked control over environmental decisions in the project once the formal commenting period ends, is the same that the City of Austin and Save Our Springs Alliance expressed last month when they both requested TxDOT withdraw its draft because of inadequate information.

SH45 SW, which has been in the planning stages for 30 years, has polarized groups into diametrically opposed positions. One group says the road must be built to eliminate traffic congestion in far South Austin, while others say the proposed toll road will irreparably harm the fragile environment over the Barton Springs aquifer recharge zone.

During Tuesday’s meeting, board president Robert Larson argued that both the district’s comments and the draft EIS show a commitment between the two organizations to work together through the entire project.

“They’re making commitments; we’re making commitments. We have to have some trust, we have to have some faith, and that is assured in parts of (the draft EIS),” Larson said.

Larson felt optimistic, in part, after a meeting he had with TxDOT last week. In that meeting, district officials aired concerns with the draft EIS, particularly over a lack of a finished geological assessment, and the two sides talked about the process behind environmental impact statements and construction projects.

“The district wants to be involved in decision making … all the way through the end of the completion of the project,” he said Tuesday. “(TxDOT) said ‘fine,’ that they’re planning on doing that.”

Much of the faith the district is placing in TxDOT is backed up, legally, by a 1990 consent decree, a judicial order handed down in response to a lawsuit over an earlier SH45 project. The decree established environmental procedures for future highway projects and for a working relationship between TxDOT and the aquifer district.

“We’ve got a judge-ordered seat at the table, if you will,” Dupnik said after Tuesday’s meeting.

The draft EIS, however, does not mention the consent decree, one of the district’s main objections within its comments.

“We view the court-ordered decree as the guiding document assuring the District’s role in this project and TxDOT’s responsibility for designing and building the roadway to the highest level of environmental protection possible,” the comments state.

Though Dupnik thinks that TxDOT will take input from the district as the project advances, he said this is the most important time to make suggestions.

“It is kind of a Catch-22,” Dupnik said. “The project is most nimble right now, and there’s most opportunity for influence on what ultimately (the project) looks like, but we also understand that they don’t have all the detail that we would really like to have to be able to analyze it at the level that we’d like to.”

The district’s board meets again tonight in a regularly scheduled monthly meeting.

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