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Water worries derail Decker Lake golf course vote

Friday, November 21, 2014 by Jo Clifton

Worries about water — and Central Texas’ persistent drought — have derailed, at least temporarily, plans for the Decker Lake golf course. After hearing concerns from Austin Water Utility Director Greg Meszaros, City Council voted 7-0 to postpone consideration of an agreement to turn over 735 acres of parkland for development of a high-end golf course that promoters hoped would bring the PGA Tour to Austin.

Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole first made a motion to postpone the item until February 2015, after a new Council has been seated. Mayor Lee Leffingwell, a strong proponent of the golf course, made a substitute motion to bring the item back for this Council’s final meeting Dec. 11. Between now and then, there will be more discussions between developers and the water utility as well as between the utility and the Parks Department. However, it is unclear how much could change in the next three weeks.

Council heard from people who said they supported putting the golf course in East Austin, where it might spur economic development for the area and provide recreational opportunities for their children. They and the providers of the golf course argued that because the golf course would use reclaimed water, not potable water, it would represent no risk to Austin’s water supply.

Council also heard from opponents, mostly environmentalists, who argued that creation of a new golf course on city-owned property would send the wrong message to the Lower Colorado River Authority as well as to downstream agricultural users. Those users are facing yet another year without water for their agricultural crops, and the LCRA has proposed cutting off some of the environmental flows that keep downstream bays and estuaries healthy.

Those on the side of going forward with the contract seemed like they might be winning the argument until Council Member Bill Spelman called upon Meszaros to discuss his concerns about water usage at the golf course.

Under questioning, Meszaros explained the possible risks associated with the golf course at Decker, which has been identified as an off-channel reservoir.

Council appointed a water resource task force, which met throughout the summer to come up with policies and plans for augmenting Austin’s water supply and increasing water conservation.

Meszaros spoke of the project in terms of risk. Part of the risk, of course, is that at this point it’s not possible to know what problems a golf course could create if the utility wanted to use Decker Lake as an emergency water supply, an off-channel reservoir for storing water, for example.

Meszaros said a project at Decker Lake could be “the most rapid emergency water supply that we could deploy in this drought,” noting that the utility is “just exploring … how we might use that off-channel reservoir.” Although golf course promoters have talked about using reclaimed water, Meszaros noted, “We would like to use the reclaimed water to complement the water supply in this area.”

“We just don’t know how a large development like the golf course would inhibit that strategy. We have been working with the LCRA … to cut off downstream water,” he said, noting that there is “high emotion” among those who might lose their water releases.

Meszaros added, “One of the things I’ve discussed often is our credibility … being an early adopter of conservation, being cautious with how we use water … this has helped us. I think a large golf course development that would use reclaimed water that would normally be returned back to the river poses some risk” to plans the city and the LCRA have for water management.

Meszaros noted that getting reclaimed water to Decker Lake would cost $13 million to $15 million. It might cost more than that to get it to the golf course. According to the water utility’s figures, the city’s Clay/Kizer golf courses each use 115 million gallons of reclaimed water per year on each of the two courses.

Leffingwell, for one, did not appreciate Meszaros’ frank comments. He said, “I don’t want to be too critical, Mr. Meszaros, but I think your attitude toward this has been counter to the interests of the City of Austin.” There were a number of boos and a few whistles from the audience.

A few minutes later, Council Member Mike Martinez got a round of applause when he apologized to Meszaros. After noting that he was taught as a child never to apologize for “another man’s ill-fated actions,” Martinez said, “But I’m going to apologize for the lack of respect and decorum that was shown to you.” He pointed out that Meszaros has had a rough time with this Council, starting with Water Treatment Plant Number 4 and continuing through last night. “And I’m going to apologize.” Martinez praised Meszaros for being courteous and professional at all times, despite the difficult issues he has faced.

But before all that happened, Council heard from a variety of supporters for the project. Resident Barbara Scott, president of the Colony Park Neighborhood Association, was one of the most eloquent. She said of her neighbors, “They are tired of living in a neighborhood that is being disenfranchised. They are tired of what low income has meant to us, which means if we continually get people that only make $30,000 a year, we’re not ever going to be lifted up out of that poverty level that we’ve gone to … We have more renters, we have three tax credit properties already out there, we have a huge supply of Section 8 homes out there. And we need to bring in some workforce housing to lift up the economy. That’s the only thing is going to lift up the neighborhood.”

Scott said the neighborhood is desperate to have a real grocery store. Only convenience stores serve the area. She believes her neighbors would help a grocery store make enough money to prosper, but they won’t be able to talk anyone into locating there until there is a different type of housing and more economic development, she said.

“This is about economics, this is about a part of town that has been disenfranchised for years,” Scott said. “I bet if they were trying to put a dump over here, nobody would come out and complain about that. We already have the dump. Nobody would complain if they were trying to put another prison out there. We already have a prison. … So now somebody’s trying to put something out here that will make money, boost the economy, boost the area. Now everybody’s complaining. They use the complaint they’re going to use the water. They’re going to use reclaimed water. … The city is not going to spend any money, the city is going to make money. That’s a win-win situation.”

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