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Just figuring out how to clean up creeks may be costly

Friday, January 24, 2020 by Jo Clifton

When Council Member Paige Ellis and three of her colleagues decided to do something about contamination of Austin’s creeks and rivers from trash as well as scooters, they focused on how the Watershed Protection Department should prepare an extensive study so that Council could understand the scope of the problem and the cost of addressing it.

The original resolution from Ellis, Council members Natasha Harper-Madison and Greg Casar, and Mayor Steve Adler would have directed City Manager Spencer Cronk to prepare the study and deliver it to Council no later than June 12.

But at Thursday’s Council meeting, Council Member Jimmy Flannigan asked, how much is the study going to cost?

Jorge Morales, director of Watershed Protection, told Council the task would take about a year and cost around $500,000. That amount would include funding for a new full-time employee in his department funding the department currently does not have, he explained.

Flannigan said the work certainly needed to be done but he wasn’t comfortable supporting the resolution without getting answers to the funding questions. And, while the amended resolution passed unanimously, there was no promise that such an expensive study would be funded in the 2021 budget.

After discussing the matter and getting some help from Council Member Kathie Tovo, Ellis amended her resolution so that it now directs Cronk to report back to Council on Feb. 20 on a projected timeline and funding options for studying how best to clean up the creeks.

In addition, Council directed the manager to find out what immediate actions the city can take to prevent people from throwing micro-mobility devices into the city’s waterways. For example, Ellis said the city could post more signs along Lady Bird Lake warning of legal action against people who throw scooters into the lake. In addition, she said the city could undertake a public outreach campaign and could find out what other cities do to deal with such situations.

As the Austin Monitor previously reported, last year the city’s Waller Creek Tunnel Program removed 342 mobility devices from Waller Creek. Shoal Creek is another once-clean waterway that now is too polluted for people to swim or wade in and is one where scooters have been thrown.

Numerous representatives of environmental organizations came to Council Thursday to show public support for cleaning debris as well as micro transportation devices out of Austin’s waterways. They included Luke Metzger of Environment Texas and Leah Bojo of the Trails Foundation, as well as representatives of the Save Our Springs Alliance, the Save Barton Creek Association, Keep Austin Beautiful, the Waterloo Greenway Conservancy (previously known as the Waller Creek Foundation) and the Shoal Creek Conservancy.

Metzger told Council how tiny particles of plastic floating in our waterways can kill birds, fish, turtles and other animals. One study by Baylor University found that 75 percent of fish in a specific creek had microplastics in their stomachs, a danger not only to the fish but also to people who might catch and eat the fish. “We definitely need aggressive action to address plastic pollution,” Metzger said.

He suggested that the city consider banning Styrofoam on city property, eliminating the use of single-use plastic containers at the airport, and encouraging restaurants to require that customers request plastic straws instead of automatically providing them. Metzger also said the city might look at an additional fee for scooter users and using the city’s clean community fee. According to the city’s website, that fee funds numerous programs, including street sweeping, litter abatement, recycling and dead animal collection. City utility customers pay $8.95 per month for those services.

Various studies have shown that plastic pollution is an ever-growing problem, not only in Austin but worldwide. But the pollution caused by having electric scooters dumped into the city’s creeks, lakes and rivers is a relatively new one.

Robert Spillar, director of Austin’s Transportation Department, told Council the department informs scooter companies when it finds a scooter in one of the city’s waterways, and those companies generally respond very quickly to remedy the problem. He pointed out that it is generally not scooter riders who throw the scooters into the water.

In a news release, Ellis said, “Our watersheds are our most important natural resource, and we are overdue for a study on how to best protect them from plastic bags, litter, and hazardous materials. Pollution is not just a problem in one part of town, and it does not have just one solution. A study of this scope and magnitude has never been done before, and I’m thankful that Council reinforced its commitment to improving our environment.”

Harper-Madison, who cosponsored the resolution said during a news conference after passage of the resolution, “Whenever somebody brings up environmental activism in Austin, most people probably immediately think of Save Our Springs, the Balcones Canyonlands, the golden-cheeked warbler … and a whole mess of other things that are generally found west of downtown.

“But let’s not forget the great victories for environmental justice on the east side. I’m talking about the decades-long struggle to shut down and clean up the Holly Power Plant, and former County Commissioner Ron Davis’ heroic effort to remove a massive fuel tank storage site just off Airport Boulevard. On one side, it’s about environmental protections. On the other, it’s about environmental justice.”

She said she was grateful to Ellis for putting forth the resolution to address both environmental protection and justice. District 1, she said, contains the most polluted creeks in Austin, and they need this kind of attention.

Finally, she had a message for those scofflaws throwing scooters into waterways. “For the love of Pete act your age, people. Don’t go throwing any dang scooters into the creek.”

Photo by LoneStarMike [CC BY-SA].

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