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County faces a future of frequent, heavy storms

Wednesday, October 10, 2018 by Ryan Thornton

As anyone who has sat for hours in Austin traffic knows, city infrastructure is often built to meet the needs of the present, not the needs of 15 or even 10 years down the road. This is a problem when adapting to rapid population growth, but when accommodating for something as unpredictable as natural disaster, the problem can be even more challenging.

During the Travis County Commissioners Court Tuesday morning voting session, commissioners called for Travis County to step out of this cycle of building for the present and begin to develop infrastructure now that can absorb the kinds of potentially cataclysmic storms Austin is facing with climate change.

These comments were in response to a presentation by the Public Works Department concerning the potential fiscal impact to the county if it were to adopt new standards of projected rainfall intensities into the Travis County code based on the findings of a recent scientific analysis of the region.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has found, in a study called Atlas 14, that rainfall totals in Central Texas have been increasing on average. In examining rainfall data through 2017, NOAA determined that current regional rainfall projections – based on data collected through 1994 – are no longer accurate.

In fact, they’re quite inaccurate: According to the new Atlas 14 data, what we call a 100-year event – 10 inches of rainfall over 24 hours – is now a 25-year event in our region. Likewise, our definition of a 500-year event has become a 100-year event according to the study. The type of storm that had a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year now has a 4 percent chance of occurring in a given year.

Upon the adoption of these rainfall intensities, many new construction projects in Travis County’s 2017-22 bond program would be required to undergo a redesign process to improve drainage in the case of a 100-year event, as defined by the Atlas 14 data. Projects completed prior to the 2017-22 bond program would not be required to meet the new standards.

Public Works has estimated the total cost of this to be approximately $31 million, distributed over five years.

This cost estimate, however, did not deter the commissioners.

“The science of climate change is not in question,” said Commissioner Brigid Shea. “All one has to do is look at the multiple severe weather events Travis County has experienced in the past few years. Travis County must be prepared to protect our constituents and make certain our projects are climate change resilient. By doing this as early as possible, we can maintain fiscal responsibility and prioritize safety.”

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt echoed Shea’s sense of urgency.

“Travis County has a responsibility to prepare for the future and to lead by example,” she said. “Atlas 14 has shown we must make changes to our bond projects in order to keep our constituents safe. As we move forward with our projects, our staff will continue to work closely with our neighboring governments and make certain we are keeping the best interests of our constituents in mind. While the added costs are significant, we must do what is necessary to keep safety our priority.”

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty expressed a desire for other governing bodies, like the city of Austin, to adopt the Atlas 14 data so that the region is working in concert and no single governing body is disadvantaged by more financially burdensome regulations.

Commissioner Margaret Gómez, however, emphasized the county’s responsibility to do everything it can to protect its residents.

“Now is the time to take action and move forward with our projects, while taking the Atlas 14 information into consideration,” said Gómez. “Ultimately, it is our responsibility as a Commissioners Court to maintain the safety of our constituents, our bond projects, and the environment where they are being constructed.”

The Commissioners Court plans to vote on adopting the Atlas 14 data in late October or early November.

Photo by City of Austin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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