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Friday, January 16, 2015 by Kara Nuzback

Conservation District delays vote on SH45 SW agreement

Representatives of the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District voted to put off a decision on an agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation that is intended to provide greater environmental protection for the construction of State Highway 45 Southwest.

District residents, civic organizations and representatives of Austin and Travis County urged the aquifer district board to delay its vote on the agreement for three weeks to give all interested parties time to properly review the agreement, the latest draft of which TxDOT sent to the board less than three hours before its Thursday meeting began, according to district general counsel Bill Dugat.

Board President Bob Larsen and Members Mary Stone and Blayne Stansberry voted to delay the vote after a 20-minute discussion with Dugat in a closed-door session. Board Members Blake Dorsett and Craig Smith could not attend the meeting, Larsen said.

The discussion stems from a 25-year-old consent decree, which settled litigation between the Save Barton Creek Association and the Federal Highway Administration. The decree maps out each entity’s role in the construction and maintenance of SH45 SW.

Rather than modify the decree in court, TxDOT created a separate agreement setting provisions for the construction of SH45 SW that, according to the agreement, are “equally or more protective of the Edwards Aquifer than the 1990 consent decree.”

The agreement includes commitments that the 3.6-mile, four-lane tolled parkway, set to run from the south end of MoPac Boulevard to FM 1626, will adhere to specific structural best practices to minimize pollutant runoff from the roadway, including using permeable pavement for the road and placing hazardous material traps near all waterways and drainage ways.

The agreement also requires TxDOT to perform a geological assessment to identify sensitive landscape that significantly contributes to the aquifer and Flint Ridge Cave, and requires the agency to propose methods to protect that landscape.

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Mobile Authority — the agency that will design and construct SH45 SW — must hire an independent environmental compliance manager to be present during construction and ensure the specified environmental protections are enforced, according to the agreement.

Before the meeting, Travis County Judge Sara Eckhardt, Commissioner Brigid Shea and Save Our Springs Alliance Director Bill Bunch sent letters to the aquifer district board pointing out problems with the agreement. In their letter, Eckhardt and Shea said the county purchased the land for SH45 SW with the understanding that the consent decree would guide the project.

In a separate letter, Bunch said the new agreement does nothing to strengthen water protection and imposes conditions that have either already happened, or that TxDOT is required to do under different authority. He called the agreement an attempt to “whitewash” TxDOT’s violations of the consent decree.

At the Thursday meeting, most of those who testified simply asked the board to delay the vote so the agreement could be examined more thoroughly.

“The goal is worthy,” Bunch said. However, he added, the language of the document was concerning. “You really can’t just shift a few words around … and vote on it tonight,” he said.

Roger Baker of the SOS Alliance urged the board not to make a hasty decision that could later come back to haunt it.

“We have a last-minute agreement that just came in today,” he said.

Travis County attorney Tom Nuckols asked for a three-week delay on behalf of the Commissioners Court, saying many county and city entities hold a stake in the decision and would like to suggest some “modest” changes to the document.

“Take some time to make sure the right hand knows what the left hand is doing,” he said.

William Conrad of Austin Water Utility said the city owns much of the land on which SH45 SW would sit. He asked the board to delay the vote for at least three weeks.

“Let’s work together … as partners,” he said.

Austin Environmental Officer Chuck Lesniak said the city has no official request to delay the vote, but “we’ve got a lot of questions about the agreement. There are some potential unintended consequences.” One of which, he added, is the document’s potential to weaken the district’s position when it comes to water quality protection.

Lesniak said there is no negative impact in a three-week delay.

Two members of the Shady Hollow Neighborhood — Vikki Goodwin and Gail Whitfield — urged the board to act quickly so construction on the highway could begin.

“We hate to hear the word ‘delay,’” Goodwin said.

Whitfield added, “We do need highways in Southwest Austin.”

Stone made the motion to delay, saying the item would be up for discussion in two weeks, but no action would be taken until the board’s Feb. 12 meeting.

Stone also urged members of the public to submit written comments to the district by Jan. 30.

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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."

Save Our Springs Alliance (SOS): An advocacy organization. According to its web site, Save Our Springs "works to protect the Edwards Aquifer, its springs and contributing streams, and the natural and cultural heritage of the Hill Country region and its watersheds, with special emphasis on Barton Springs."

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.

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