Thursday, May 11, 2017 by Sommer Brugal

Environmental Commission holds off on water quality requirements (again)

Despite the Environmental Commission’s efforts to remove controversial amendments to the Watershed Protection Ordinance at previous meetings, the commission was unable to resolve an amendment relating to water quality control at its regular meeting May 3.

Andrea Bates, the environmental program coordinator at the Watershed Protection Department, presented various proposed amendments to the Watershed Protection Ordinance, which the Urban Growth Policy and Water Quality Regulations Joint Committee considered at its meeting May 1. The amendments discussed address code cleanups and provide clarification for land and agricultural uses, and were originally presented at the Environmental Commission’s regular meeting on April 5 as part of the department’s 44 code amendments.

The joint committee agreed on eight recommendations to the specific amendments, but various commission members maintained their concerns regarding a provision to water quality control requirements relating to specific types of agricultural improvements. Bates said the proposal would exempt agricultural improvements, to structures like barns, for example, from water quality control requirements if the property is located in the desired development zone and the impervious cover does not exceed 20 percent of the gross site area.

Commissioner Wendy Gordon was the first to present her interpretation.

“So essentially here, you’re trying to, I guess, head off what you perceive to be an anticipated issue,” said Gordon.

Chair Marisa Perales followed suit. “As (agriculture) operators discover that they are subject to water quality regulations,” Perales said, “you’re anticipating they’re going to need an exception.”

According to Bates, the amendment would apply to buildings or facilities that support agricultural uses and don’t facilitate events or sales. Bates said the department thinks the amendment would provide a benefit that would be of use to the particular type of development.

“The reason (this amendment is) proposed is to allow a farm development to get a break in engineering costs for permitting and costs for water quality control,” said Bates. “It’s basically to allow the development of a barn to be a little easier for someone who really isn’t familiar with water regulations.”

Perales said a main reason for possible exemption from water quality code rests in the assumption that a facility supporting agricultural functions has a substantial amount of vegetation. Still, though, she asked whether it was possible to include language that requires runoff stormwater drain from a structure to a pervious, vegetated area.

Chuck Lesniak, environmental officer at the Watershed Protection Department, responded to Perales, saying her suggested requirement is essentially what the city is aiming for with CodeNEXT. He said it was similar to the code’s green infrastructure and reuse elements that distribute water flow in a non-erosive manner.

Gordon echoed that sentiment and suggested the need for balance when waiving water quality requirements altogether.

“We are seeing potentially a more intensive land use in terms of providing fertilizers or pesticides on the land,” Gordon said. “So there’s this balance that maybe should be struck with waiving water quality even if a structure itself isn’t problematic (but could be) generating runoff in a landscape that could contain chemicals.”

Gordon said the idea of implementing a greener infrastructure on-site, or implementing a measure that counteracts that potential runoff, is an important one to keep in mind.

Commissioner Brytne Kitchin, however, raised a question regarding the definition of agriculture and whether staff had discussed deleting “raising or keeping poultry” from its explanation.

According to Bates, the way the definition is used in the code relates to clearing requirements. She said staff used the state’s definition for agricultural operations, which includes provisions for raising livestock.

“People have historically taken advantage of (the provision) and have cleared the land for livestock,” Bates said. “So I think if we were to remove livestock from the definition, we’d no longer be able to have an exemption for clearing the pasture for livestock.”

She said removing the language would have the result of changing current code and past practice.

With a number of additional concerns and recommendations raised throughout the discussion, commissioners agreed to send the proposal back to a special committee for further review. It will be reviewed along with the Barton Springs Zone Redevelopment Exception amendments and the amendment to allow on-site restoration as mitigation for the redevelopment in the water supply watershed.

The other proposed amendments to the ordinance discussed passed unanimously and will move forward to be presented to City Council in mid-June. The Watershed Protection Department hopes to present the specific provision related to water quality control requirements to Council on June 22.

Photo by Jeff Kramer from Austin, US (Chickens) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Environmental Commission: An advisory board to members of the Austin City Council. Its purview includes "all projects and programs which affect the quality of life for the citizens of Austin." In many cases, this includes development projects.

Watershed Protection Department: The city's Watershed Protection Department works to reduce the impact of floods, erosion and water pollution in the city. The department is mostly funded by the city's drainage fee.

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