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Watershed strategic plan revisions on the way

Monday, September 20, 2021 by Kali Bramble

The Environmental Commission heard the first of many presentations last Wednesday as the Watershed Protection Department begins its effort to comprehensively rewrite its strategic plan for the first time since 2001. 

The strategic plan update is a three-year outreach process that would prioritize the input of historically underserved groups in reshaping the department’s approach to determining its objectives. Watershed staff members are aiming to incorporate concerns over racial equity and climate change that have made their way into public discourse over the past two decades.

Once known as the Watershed Protection Master Plan and since renamed, the strategic plan has steered the department for many years toward three central goals: mitigating flooding, preventing erosion and improving water quality. The plan was amended in 2015 to expand the number of targeted watersheds and refine evaluation metrics with more advanced research methods; however, its guiding principles have remained unchanged for 20 years.

Currently, the plan prioritizes watershed projects via a “worst first” approach, in which sites are given numerical problem scores based on assessment of flood risk, erosion risk and water quality conditions. The score is calculated as a function of problem severity, reflected in measured data and “resource value,” a number qualitatively assigned to represent the value attributed to impacted structures. 

The department anticipates that the criteria buried within this formula may be in need of a change. While the demographics of those surveyed 20 years ago to define these values were not recorded, Watershed planning manager Andrea Bates notes that, “anecdotally, we know it is not a group that reflected the diversity of our city.”

This time around, the department has developed a robust community outreach program to gather input from groups disproportionately affected by economic and social hardships, such as people of color, immigrants, impoverished communities and the homeless population. This entails the use of new engagement methods such as walk-and-talks, virtual open houses, online educational events, and paid advertisements designed with these groups in mind, as well as partnerships with organizations such as the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, Dove Springs Proud and Go Austin/Vamos Austin.

Through these discussions, the Watershed Protection Department hopes to better understand how flooding, erosion and water quality hazards impact vulnerable communities in ways that may differ from other populations. The department plans to use this information to revise the strategic plan’s approach toward determining goals and prioritizing new projects. 

Accounting for an extensive drafting and review process, the department estimates that the new plan will be ready for City Council approval sometime around December 2024.

Also driving the revision is evidence of the worsening climate crisis. More frequent and severe weather events are likely to inform the department’s reevaluated methodologies.

The Environmental Commission generally expressed its support of this long-awaited change, though agreement over particular details was not unanimous. Commissioner Rachel Scott questioned the wisdom of a three-year timeline in the face of an accelerating climate crisis, commenting that the source of many constituent frustrations was the failure to act quickly on account of long, bureaucratic processes.

Commissioner Jennifer Bristol offered a different perspective, suggesting that investment in the strategic plan’s long-term goals was a step toward loosening the “tyranny of urgency” that threatened to corner the department into a reactive rather than proactive position. 

Bates reassured the commission that the revision process will not interfere with the department’s more urgent, short-term projects.

The three-year revision process is slated to begin in January 2022. In the meantime, check for updates.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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