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Friday, January 9, 2015 by Mark Richardson

Aquifer district cancels SH45 meeting with TxDOT

The Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District postponed a planned meeting Thursday at which the district’s board planned to consider a controversial agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation regarding construction of State Highway 45 Southwest.

Aquifer board officials said they called off the meeting because of a posting error and rescheduled it for next week. That information was apparently not widely disseminated, however, as people planning to attend the meeting were told of the postponement after arriving at the district office. A number of elected officials and environmental groups had also communicated with the district Thursday, calling for the board to delay considering the agreement to give them more time to study it.

The proposed agreement between TxDOT and the aquifer district — based on a 1990 consent decree stemming from a lawsuit between the Save Barton Creek Association and the Federal Highway Administration — would establish environmental standards for the construction and operation of the 3.5-mile toll road. Both TxDOT and the aquifer district are bound by the articles of the 1990 decree. predates the creation of both TxDOT and the aquifer district, but both agencies are bound by the ruling.

Highway officials proposed SH45 SW in 1986 as a segment of an outer loop planned for the Austin metropolitan areas. The loop, consisting of portions of SH45, RM620 and SH130, is mostly completed, but environmental groups have fought state highway and other officials with lawsuits over the segment designated as SH45 SW. That roadway, which would connect the south end of MoPac Boulevard and FM1626 in Hays County, is planned over a sensitive area of the Barton Springs aquifer recharge zone, including a karst formation known as Flint Ridge Cave, where a number of endangered species of invertebrates live.

Earlier Thursday, Travis County Judge Sara Eckhardt and Commissioner Brigid Shea, as well as Save Our Springs Alliance Director Bill Bunch, sent letters to the aquifer district requesting a postponement because of a number of potential problems with the agreement.

Eckhardt and Shea’s letter pointed out: “Travis County has a special interest in the matter given that the county purchased the right of way for that portion of SH45 SW between South MoPac and FM1626, and delivered it to TxDOT with the express understanding that the Consent Decree would govern any and all construction and operation of a highway in that location.”

Bunch told district officials that he is concerned that the agreement erroneously specifies that the decree applies only to “Outer Loop, Segment 3” and not SH45 SW, and that the decree does not apply to the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority despite the fact the TxDOT has directly contracted with CTRMA to build and operate the road.

It does not appear that pleas from Travis County and SOS to delay the meeting actually moved aquifer district officials to put it off. Bunch said in an email that he was informed that “Travis County Attorney David Escamilla identified a posting error under the Texas Open Meetings Act for tonight’s (Thursday’s) BSEACD special called meeting. Based on this, the district’s outside attorney, Bill Dugat, advised the board not to hold any meeting.”

Bunch added that in addition to SOS, Save Barton Creek Association President Steve Beers and Austin Sierra Club leader Roy Waley had also planned to attend the aquifer district meeting.

Aquifer district officials say they will repost the notice for a Jan. 15 meeting.

(This article was updated Jan. 9 to correct a statement that the 1990 consent decree predated the aquifer district. The district was created by the Texas Legislature in 1987.)

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District: An entity charged with oversight of a portion the Edwards Aquifer. Groundwater Conservation Districts are established through Texas State legislative approval, under a state law first approved in the 1950s. According to its web site, the BSEACD's charge is "to conserve, protect, and enhance the groundwater resources in its jurisdictional area."

SH45SW: A controversial road project that supporters argue would ease traffic traveling through areas of far Southwest Travis and far Southeastern Hays County. Opponents argue that the environmental impact of the effort, which runs close to sensitive land, is not worth that risk. The debate over the issue goes back as far as the mid-1980s.

TxDOT: The transportation agency for the State of Texas.

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