Friday, March 6, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

Watershed Protection to begin multiyear study of trash in waterways

With trash and contaminants like dockless scooters rapidly accumulating in city creeks and rivers, Watershed Protection is kicking off a two-year, three-part study to better understand the impact of litter on city waterways.

The study begins this month with a background report on trash issues, will transition into a yearlong survey of trash types, sources and pathways in October, and concludes with a final report including national best practices, solutions and a timeline by June 2022.

“Although there are a wide variety of litter and trash-related programs and policies, including Watershed Protection Department routine monitoring of trash, there has never been a comprehensive study of trash dynamics in our watersheds to understand the sources, quantities and pathways of trash that moves from our uplands to our creeks and receiving water bodies,” states the department’s Trash in Creeks Project work plan.

On a parallel track, Austin Transportation will take a closer look at what other cities and dockless companies are doing to keep mobility devices out of waterways. Those findings will be included in a survey report in April 2022.

Watershed Protection has been studying creek litter and trash issues since last year with a particular interest in addressing the health consequences of fecal bacteria in creeks. The effort has called for new staff and resources, some of which will now be redirected into the trash study in October.

The trash project was proposed in a clean creeks resolution passed by City Council in January. Council Member Paige Ellis led the initiative, asking for the trash study as well as immediate and long-term methods to keep mobility devices out of creeks.

Since dockless scooters came to town in 2018, Austin Transportation has introduced impoundment fees for removing scooters from waterways and modified 311 reporting so dockless companies are instantly notified when there is an issue with one of their devices.

Last summer, in response to vandals tossing scooters into creeks and rivers, the department geofenced areas around parks and waterways and created “no end-ride” and “no-deploy” zones around waterways.

In the near future, Transportation is going to place “dockless corrals” for parking at the ends of bridges that cross waterways to prevent the scooters from being easily thrown off bridges. Signs will also be placed near creeks and rivers warning of fines of up to $2,000 for littering in waterways.

Watershed Protection and Transportation also plan to use submersible drone and sonar technologies to estimate the number of scooters still sitting at the bottom of Lady Bird Lake on either side of the bridges. The results will be added to the April 2022 report.

In addition to a new full-time Watershed Protection position, the quantitative trash survey will require $150,000 in temporary staff, lab analyses and consultant costs. The final report, prepared by a hired consultant, will cost an additional $250,000. Other city departments will also contribute staff time to program and funding coordination.

“Trash and other physical contaminants are a dynamic pollutant, entering constantly into the stormwater pathway from anywhere in the watershed, and moving at unknown rates, with unknown effects on the health of the overall system,” the work plan says.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

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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