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Council assesses potential Onion Creek buyout

Wednesday, March 4, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

While the Halloween 2013 flood continues to impact lives near Onion Creek, City Council will likely decide Thursday whether the city should chip in up to $60 million to help ensure that history does not repeat itself.

Council members considered a proposal at a work session Tuesday to purchase 240 homes in the lower Onion Creek region — which was most affected by the floods — and relocate their residents to safer areas. Some spoke emphatically in favor of the project, while others raised questions about how the spending could set a precedent.

Council Member Delia Garza, who represents the district that includes the homes, encouraged her colleagues to approve the spending. “I certainly believe it’s a public safety issue and we need to get these families out of harm’s way,” she said. “When a process has been started, we need to really move forward with that — and this process has been started.”

When approving the current fiscal year’s budget, the previous Council set aside about $78 million for potential home buyouts in the Onion Creek and Williamson Creek flood plains.

Watershed Protection Department Assistant Director José Guerrero told Council that his department has an active, citywide flood risk master plan that identifies lower Onion Creek as its top priority, followed by Williamson Creek. He added that staff would be presenting Council with a buyout plan for the latter area “soon.”

Despite such priorities, Guerrero said that staff has identified between 5,000 and 6,000 properties in the city that are at risk because they are within the 25- or 100-year flood plains of creeks. In any given year, he explained, a 25-year flood plain has a 4 percent chance of flooding, while a 100-year flood plain has a 1 percent chance.

The homes that the city is considering purchasing are in the 100-year flood plain of the lower Onion Creek area. According to Watershed Protection and the Office of Real Estate Services, 140 of the homes there sustained severe damage in the 2013 flood, and the rest are at risk in the case of a future flood.

Council Member Sheri Gallo said that, while she recognizes the struggle that residents of the area have faced, the proposed buyout raises equity questions.

“Everyone that is in a 100-year flood plain in the City of Austin is at risk for flooding,” Gallo said. “I know that this was something the previous Council talked about and moved forward on, but I think, as we talk about agreeing to that decision and continuing this process … we are setting a precedent for taking care of every other house that is in the flood plain.”

Though Gallo did not make her position known on the item in question, she said Council members need to have a “huge policy discussion” on such issues in the future.

The previous Council approved spending $35.5 million to buy out 140 properties in the 25-year flood plain of the lower Onion Creek watershed last June. The city is currently completing the buyouts.

Assistant City Manager Sue Edwards said that the city had considered the Onion Creek buyout a “very special situation” when developing the current proposal. “In having discussions with the Law Department, one of the things that we considered was treating everyone within this particular area the same,” she said.

Going forward, however, Edwards said that staff has been developing a broader policy for spending city funds on flood damage mitigation projects that it plans to recommend to Council in the near future.

The policy, Edwards said, addresses “a very deliberate concern about equity and the amount of money (the city has) to spend or the amount of money we might get moving forward, and we want to be sure that we can … spread it out as far as we can.”

The city has worked since 1999 with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on flood damage mitigation in Onion Creek. Last year’s $35.5 million buyout and the proposed $60 million buyout fall outside of the areas covered by that agreement and are not subject to the same requirements.


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