Friday, February 20, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

Staff says Decker golf plan may limit water hazard

A proposal to construct a set of golf courses in Austin in the midst of a record drought has whipped up controversy over the past few months, but city staff has indicated that a plan the prospective developer floated last week may address some major environmental concerns.

City Environmental Officer Chuck Lesniak told the Austin Monitor on Wednesday that, based on an initial look at Decker Lake Golf LLC’s proposal to drill deep into the Trinity Aquifer for irrigation water, he and his staff “don’t see a big negative impact” from an environmental standpoint.

“We just got it, and we’re going to pick it apart over the next few days,” Lesniak said. “I think we’ll have a chance to have a pretty solid opinion by next week on what we think about the groundwater proposal.”

City Council is scheduled Thursday to consider authorizing a 50-year licensing agreement that would allow the developer to construct and operate two PGA-level golf courses within the 735-acre Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park in East Austin. The project would be a partnership with the Parks and Recreation Department, which would receive a portion of the profits.

Council has postponed the item twice, following lengthy discussions about how a previous proposal to use reclaimed water to irrigate the courses might impact the city’s water supply, which is facing serious challenges. The new proposal could theoretically bypass this issue, because it would use a water source that is not part of the city’s portfolio.

At last Wednesday’s Water and Wastewater Commission meeting, Decker Lake Golf LLC Vice President Warren Hayes proposed the idea of drilling 3,000 feet into the Hosston Formation — the deepest of three distinct levels of the Trinity — to pull up the 165 million gallons of “brackish” water per year he said it would take to irrigate the golf course. If the plan is approved, he said, his company would drill the well either on the parkland or on his adjacent private property.

As far as potable water for the course’s clubhouse, Hayes told the Monitor on Thursday that his company is looking into options that may or may not involve the city. Wastewater, he said, could be an option by using a combination of rain or irrigation water and an on-site septic system.

Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District Senior Hydrogeologist Brian Smith told the Monitor on Thursday that, though he hasn’t seen the proposal, he has looked into data from the Texas Water Development Board that shows salinity levels ranging between 1200 and 1900 milligrams per liter of total dissolved solids.

“The water quality is not good like we’re used to with surface water or Edwards water, but for deep Trinity water, it’s really not that bad either,” he said. “As far as using that for golf courses, it varies. It’s within a range that’s usually acceptable from what I’ve been able to research, but you never quite know.”

Smith explained that the portion of the Trinity the developer is proposing to drill is not under the jurisdiction of a groundwater conservation district, which means the developer would likely face fewer obstacles in getting permission to pump. He added that it is distinct from the Trinity’s Cow Creek Formation, which is an object of major conflict in Hays County.

Lesniak said that he and his staff have begun to consider the three major potential issues that the plan raises: impacts on nearby wells, runoff into nearby Decker Lake — which the city may begin to use as a reservoir in the next few years — and the effects that the water’s salinity could have on the grass.

“We think the potential for impacts to other groundwater users in the area is limited,” Lesniak said. “We’re going to take a really close look at it, but it’s such a deep well that we think that it shouldn’t impact other nearby wells. We also think that the potential for impacts to surface water in the area, to the water in (Decker Lake) and to Decker Creek downstream, is probably limited.”

The effects on grass, Lesniak said, will likely depend on what variety the developer uses. “Our folks took a look at the typical grass used for golf courses — looked at some data I think from the Florida area — and I think the salinity was in the range of what’s acceptable. I don’t know about long-term use.”

Kevin Gomillion, golf division manager for Parks and Recreation, told the Water and Wastewater Commission that his department and the developer do not expect the proposed course to look traditional, touting the phrase “brown is the new green.”

Gomillion also said that the developer has agreed to maintain a 150-foot development buffer from the shoreline of the lake and work with Watershed Protection when designing the course.

Lesniak said that such a buffer “would filter out some of the salinity and the direct impacts to the lake.”

Regardless of what Watershed Protection ultimately decides about the viability of the drilling plan, Council will have to wrestle with the many other complex social issues involved with the project and the park itself, which Council Member Ora Houston said Tuesday suffers from “benign neglect.”

Citizens who have argued in favor of the course said it will catalyze badly needed economic growth in surrounding neighborhoods. Meanwhile, citizens who have opposed it said it will not live up to its economic promise and that the city should use the land for more accessible purposes that integrate more directly with the environment.

Photo by Phil Hawksworth from London, England (Not so smug) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department: The city department responsible for the city's park system, rec centers, and associated infrastructure.

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