Thursday, January 28, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

Council adopts new flood control resolution

In her first move on City Council, new member Vanessa Fuentes authored a resolution directing the city to provide an update on its flood resilience plans.

“Often in my community it’s not a matter of if the next big flood happens, but when the next big flood happens,” Fuentes said. “It is essential that this issue remains a priority in order to prevent further loss of life and displacement, which unfortunately disproportionately affects the most vulnerable members of our community.”

The mayor and Council members praised Fuentes’ efforts and voted unanimously in favor. Fuentes represents District 2 in Southeast Austin where some of Austin’s most damaging floods have occurred. 

The resolution tells the city manager to summarize what the city has already done to manage floods, in particular the mitigation efforts for the area’s most dangerous creeks, such as Onion Creek. 

The manager’s report must also describe how future amendments to the Land Development Code, updates to the Watershed Protection Master Plan and unadopted recommendations by the Flood Mitigation Task Force could be included in flood control plans. Council could turn the report’s conclusions into policy after April, when the report is due.

Climate change informed Council’s conversation about flood risk and planning. “We know that Central Texas is designated as Flash Flood Alley,” Fuentes said, “and that we are expected to see an increase in extreme weather events.”

The National Weather Service predicts that flooding will worsen in Austin as the climate becomes more unstable. According to the Atlas 14 study, 25-year, 100-year and 500-year flood events are now projected to be much more intense than previously estimated.  

Fuentes brought attention to the “catastrophic and historic flood events that happened in District 2 in 2013 and 2015 (that) have claimed lives, displaced families, damaged hundreds of homes.” Some residents who were displaced after these floods have not been able to find homes in Austin because they couldn’t afford the cost, Fuentes said.

Community organizers from Go Austin/Vamos Austin who spoke at the meeting celebrated the resolution but wanted to ensure it was more than just symbolic. They urged the city to restrict development in areas vulnerable to floods. One organizer, Frances Acuna, asked the city to “put in place strict regulations for localized flooding such as preventing increased impervious cover in neighborhood areas or in any redevelopment.”

Planning Commissioner Greg Anderson, who also spoke during the public comment period, wanted to ensure future flood regulations don’t restrict new affordable housing citywide. Higher-density development in the right places, he said, “is one of the most effective ways to bring down the flood risk.”

Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison amended the resolution to make sure affordability will be considered in the report and in any subsequent changes to city policy. Fuentes agreed with Harper-Madison’s amendment. “(Staffers) informed me that the affordability impact study is already standard practice,” Fuentes said. “It’s something that staff does anytime when they bring forth recommendations; it will not impact our timeline or the intent of our resolution.”

Photo by kissingtoast made available through a Creative Commons license.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Atlas 14: This study, conducted by the National Weather Service, shows that Central Texas is more likely to experience larger storms than previously thought, based on historical rainfall. This means that severe flooding is also more likely, and floodplains have changed.

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.

Onion Creek floodplain: The Onion Creek floodplain includes portions of southeast Austin and Travis County. Homeowners in the area suffered a major catastrophe in late October, 2013 when the region suffered massive flooding. Both the City of Austin and Travis County are engaged in efforts to buyout homeowners.

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