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Council approves lower Onion Creek buyout

Friday, March 6, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

Many at-risk residents of the flood-prone lower Onion Creek area were relieved to learn Thursday, after more than a year of waiting, that the city will help them move away from the area most affected by the record-breaking Halloween 2013 flood.

City Council voted overwhelmingly at a regular meeting to give city staff the go-ahead to spend up to $60 million to purchase 240 properties in the 100-year flood plain of the Onion Creek watershed and help residents relocate. The previous Council reserved the funding when it adopted the budget in September.

The vote was unanimous, with the exception of Council Member Don Zimmerman, who abstained. In a somewhat unusual order of operations, eight Council members expressed — before hearing emotional pleas from many Onion Creek residents and supporters — that they planned to vote in favor of the buyout program.

Council Member Delia Garza, who represents the affected residents, said, “A lot of families have put their lives on hold, waiting for this to finally go forward.” She invited any buyout participants with questions to contact her office for guidance and clarification.

According to the Watershed Protection Department, 140 of the eligible homes were damaged substantially in the 2013 flood, and floods also hit the area in 1998 and 2001. Since they are in a 100-year flood plain, all of the properties eligible for purchase have a 1 percent chance in any given year of facing another major flood.

Last year, the city began purchasing 140 properties in the watershed’s 25-year flood plain — at four times the risk of flooding — for a price tag of $35.5 million.

Addressing questions from several public speakers, Real Estate Services Officer Lauraine Rizer clarified that the benefits will be identical to those provided to residents of the 25-year flood plain, that the buyout program is voluntary at this time and that there is an appeal process for the buyout.

The next step in the process, Rizer said, is to mail out letters to eligible residents inviting them to a town hall meeting for further discussion.

According to Council backup, the city will award homeowners the value of their homes according to Travis County Appraisal District figures from 2012, since values dropped after the 2013 flood. It will also pay for demolition, a relocation benefit to help homeowners find a comparable residence outside of the flood plain, relocation services and a few other associated costs.

Council Member Sheri Gallo reiterated comments that she made in a Tuesday Council work session, expressing concerns that buying out the properties would create an expectation that the city will do the same for all properties in 25- or 100-year flood plains. According to staff, there are about 5,700.

Resident Yvette Griego made the case for why it is so urgent to buy out properties in the area. “The 100-year flood plain is a designation that refers to frequency of flooding, not magnitude. In other words, thousands of Austinites like us also have a 1 percent chance every year of flooding.

“A watershed is an area of land where all of the water that is under it or drains off of it goes to the same place,” Griego continued. “The size of the watershed determines how massive a flood can get.”

Griego referred to a July 2014 report by Dr. David Maidment of the University of Texas Center for Research in Water Resource that states: “Onion Creek has a huge watershed equivalent in area to the entire City of Austin” and that “the magnitude of the observed flood is within the range that could have been anticipated from past flood events … it is not ‘off the charts.’”

“The truth is that next time,” Griego said, “it could be much, much worse.”

Watershed Protection Department Assistant Director José Guerrero said Tuesday that lower Onion Creek is currently the city’s top priority for flood mitigation, followed by Williamson Creek.

Council will likely consider a similar buyout program for at-risk properties in Williamson Creek — funding for which is also available in the current budget — in the coming months.

Image by the City of Austin Watershed Protection Department

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