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Watershed Protection Department seeks to fill gaps in city regulation for creekside health

Friday, October 9, 2020 by Savana Dunning

The Watershed Protection Department recently discovered two pieces of regulation missing from Austin’s land use code that could aid and restore the health of the city’s many creeks.

Ana Gonzalez, a senior environmental scientist with the department, presented the issue at the Oct. 7 meeting of the Environmental Commission. She explained that the banks of a creek where the water meets the land are classified as riparian zones, and the vegetation and trees growing on the creek banks help to filter water pollutants and manage floodwater.

While Austin has some existing protections for its creeks, Gonzalez said the department started to notice that Austin land developers had no requirement to redirect stormwater through riparian areas. Developers will instead pipe stormwater away from their developments, consequently “starving” the creeks of water, she explained.

“There’s a huge legacy of all the development that has happened, where all the pipes go through the riparian areas but that water does not feed them, so a lot of the good things riparian areas could be doing they are not, because they don’t have that water they need to sustain that vegetation,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said the department is also working to have the city require landowners to restore riparian areas that are eroding or are in poor condition. Currently, landowners only need to restore the area to modify a floodplain, even if the area is classified as a critical water quality zone by the city.

“We realized that the creeks in the eastern portion of our city are a lot more degraded than we had imagined, and we don’t have any provisions to make them be restored,” Gonzalez said. “We’ve had ‘Don’t touch the creek and it will regenerate and do better,’ but that doesn’t apply in those areas because there’s so little canopy … you don’t get that rebounding back that you do in areas with more tree coverage.”

Over the years, the Watershed Protection Department has helped develop some programs to promote creekside health, such as Adopt a Creek and Grow Zones, which prevent vegetation from being mowed over, but the discovery of these gaps in the regulation is fairly new. Gonzalez said part of the reason the department is interested in preserving the health of creeksides is because the vegetation growing there can provide relief from the heat generated in urban areas like Austin, as well as increase shade and improve air quality.

“If these creeks are healthy, have forested systems, we can mitigate one of the very things that is only projected to get worse with climate change,” Gonzalez said. “Our people are suffering because summers are getting hotter, and during heat waves, the creeks play a really important role in helping mitigate some of that, so it’s really important to invest in restoring and protecting them.”

After Gonzalez’s presentation, Commissioner Pam Thompson raised concerns over the city using floodplains as parkland to keep the areas from being developed – which Gonzalez had mentioned as one of the city’s existing protections for riparian areas – as the parks become unusable when it rains.

Thompson also asked Gonzalez to ensure that the scope of the effort includes Montopolis as a part of East Austin, pointing to the demographics slide on the presentation, which featured a graphic by the Austin American-Statesman, which Gonzalez said she would revise.

Commissioner Mary Ann Neely offered to present the information to City Council, but Gonzalez said the discovery of these issues is still very new. Watershed is still working on analyzing the quality of creek beds, but promised to involve the commission when the time comes to present to Council.

Photo by Larry D. Moore/CC BY-SA 4.0.

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