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How the Watershed Protection Department removes obstructions from Austin creeks

Friday, April 22, 2022 by Willow Higgins

Austin, a city known for the rivers, creeks and springs that run through it, is also prone to flooding. The city’s Watershed Protection Department shoulders the responsibility of managing Austin’s waterways and reducing the impact of flooding, erosion and pollution in the community’s watershed. The department recently gave the Environmental Commission a rundown of the work it does removing obstructions from local creeks in response to questions from a commissioner about how Austin’s waterways are kept clear.

The Watershed Protection Department manages over 1,200 miles of storm conveyance pipe, 600 miles of engineered channels, 1,100 stream crossings – 700 of which are on the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s floodplain map – and over 9,000 privately owned detention ponds that the department is required to inspect.

“During any given rain event that happens, stormwater makes its way into curb inlets, into pipes, into basins, public and private water quality and detention ponds, into natural and engineered channels, and then of course it makes its way into rivers and downstream,” Christopher Meyer explained to commissioners. 

“And as you can imagine, as Austin grows, these assets under our management continue to grow as well,” he said.

With a significant amount of resources under its purview, the department handles myriad issues, like controlling for flooding, keeping open channels maintained and clear of debris, maintaining stormwater control features, and ensuring that water quality is in compliance.

While the department has its own system to ensure storm readiness and keep tabs on flooding hot spots throughout town, it also investigates and manages service requests from residents. The number of infrastructure service requests the department received spiked from 2,811 in 2017 to 4,369 in 2021. Meyer credited the uptick to increased use of 311 services and the spike in Austin’s population.

“The (requests) that come into Watershed are anything from an issue with a creek or a drainage easement, to a lost item in a storm drain, to erosion or storm drainpipe services,” Meyers said. He noted that it is common to receive a request about an obstruction in a waterway.

With so many requests to manage, the department ranks them by priority. Top-priority requests are usually issues that pose a safety risk, like a complete obstruction of a waterway that is likely to cause a flood drainage issue, whereas low-priority requests include obstructions clogging up to 25 percent of the drainage capacity. 

Environmental Commissioner Kevin Ramberg asked if Watershed grapples with any repeat issues that the commission could address to help lighten the department’s load.

“Really just educating the residents and letting them know that the (trash) that they throw into these waterways … all gets rushed down into these open channels and eventually becomes a nuisance to the residents,” Watershed’s Julius Ochoa told the commission. He said trash and debris gets carried downstream and often winds up in Lady Bird Lake and the Colorado River. “It’s one of those things where it’s kind of a cycle that’s going to continue until residents are just made aware of the situation.”

The Watershed Protection Department has begun working on a new plan to help guide its priorities and decisions over the next decade called “Rain to River: A Strategic Plan to Protect Austin’s Creeks and Communities.” The department is asking for community input to help shape its planning process. More information can be found here.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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