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City looks to bond to protect water, reduce flooding

Monday, July 24, 2017 by Jack Craver

The city needs to do a lot more to protect its water supply from contamination and its residents from flooding, officials from the Watershed Protection Department told members of the Environmental Commission Wednesday. They believe that a bond package that is currently being reviewed by a city commission offers the best opportunity for the city do the necessary work.

While the Watershed Protection Department is setting aside $33 million for capital projects in the upcoming fiscal year – an $8 million increase over the previous year – the flood mitigation efforts are not nearly caught up with the explosion in the city’s population over the past decade.

After three years in which the area experienced four floods that were declared federal disasters, the city needs to make “proactive investments” to prevent the problem from getting worse, said Watershed Protection Director Joe Pantalion.

Last year was the first in a decade that the department increased the number of crews responsible for clearing waterways of debris, repairing creeks to prevent erosion, fixing pipes and maintaining the more than 900 stormwater management ponds throughout the city.

Altogether, City Council approved 35 new positions for the department in last year’s budget and the proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year would add eight new positions.

While the department proudly touted its accomplishments, it conceded that those pale in comparison to what is left to be done.

For instance, over the past 15 years, the Watershed Protection Department has repaired or protected nine miles of streambank, but there are roughly 20 miles in need of repair. Similarly, while its work has reduced the risk of flooding for over 1,500 buildings, there remain 1,900 buildings at risk of inundation in the event of a 100-year flood.

The challenges will only become more daunting as Austin’s population grows, demanding an even more aggressive action on water issues, said department officials.

In addition to improving drainage infrastructure, the department wants to move quickly to protect large swaths of land in the Barton Springs Zone from being developed. The city can do that either by purchasing the land outright or through conservation easements, in which the city pays a property owner in exchange for an agreement that the land will remain undeveloped in perpetuity.

Conservation easements typically cost only about half as much as outright land acquisitions, Michael Personett, the department’s assistant director, told the Austin Monitor.

With property values rising, the city’s also under pressure to buy land as quickly as possible, before it becomes prohibitively expensive for taxpayers.

In addition, city officials are wary of the fact that nearly three-quarters of the Barton Springs Zone lies outside of its jurisdiction, mostly in Hays County and Dripping Springs, neither of which have as strict rules governing development as Austin. The city is therefore eager to protect as much of the land that it controls as possible.

“We’re worried that over the long term we’re going to have problems with both quantity and quality of water,” said Matt Hollon, planning manager for the department, in an interview.

What the city needs, explained department officials, is a new voter-approved bond to free up additional funding for stormwater management improvements. The proposed $640 million bond package that the Bond Election Advisory Task Force is examining includes $75 million for drainage improvements and flood mitigation.

Much of the work that the department has done in recent years has been thanks to past bonds, explained Hollon, including roughly a quarter of the ongoing or completed capital projects over the past 15 years.

Commissioner Pam Thompson said that she would like to see the department further bolstered, particularly in terms of staff. Although the bond wouldn’t fund new staff for the department, the money it would devote to capital projects would allow the department to free up more money to add employees.

However, Commissioner Andrew Creel warned that Austinites might not have the appetite for another major bond after approving a $720 million transportation bond last year and being asked to support a $1.05 billion school district bond that will be on the ballot in November.

“I think the citizens of Austin are getting a little bond-leery,” he said.

According to city budget analysts, the city could approve a bond worth up to $325 million without raising property taxes. A bond that goes through at the proposed level would likely require an increase of between one and two cents per $100 of property valuation.

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