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Incoming code amendments will set higher bar for watershed protections

Wednesday, June 22, 2022 by Kali Bramble

Following a direction passed by City Council earlier this month, the Watershed Protection Department has kept busy refining a number of Land Development Code amendments to further the city’s environmental goals.

Deputy Environmental Officer Liz Johnston stopped by the Environmental Commission meeting last week to give a high-level briefing on the department’s progress. Staff hopes that the amendments, which will set a higher bar for stormwater drainage, wastewater infrastructure and wetland protection requirements, will be ready to return to Council for recommendation this fall.

“I couldn’t be more excited about this item,” Watershed Assistant Director Katie Coyne said. “A lot of this work builds on CodeNEXT discussions drafted years ago that had robust stakeholder engagement and consensus … and will have a huge positive impact on our environmental goals as a city.”

With support from local organizations like the Save Our Springs Alliance, Go Austin/Vamos Austin and PODER, staffers are largely focusing on revising standards for stormwater drainage infrastructure that would mitigate the impacts of development on flooding and water pollution. Though specifics are not yet finalized, developers will see greater incentives for employing cleaner drainage tactics like biofiltration systems, green roofs, porous pavement and rain gardens. Development projects that are allowed more than 80 percent impervious cover will be required to implement such infrastructure via a point system to offset their runoff.

Staff also hopes to curb the encroachment of pollutants such as leaking wastewater and industrial runoff, implementing more extensive monitoring procedures and restrictions near sensitive creek systems. Other amendments will tackle erosion along Lady Bird Lake and the Colorado River downstream from the Longhorn Dam, implementing buffer zones designed to protect riparian systems along the waterfront.

Though their purview is environmental, Johnston says the Watershed Protection Department continues to juggle the city’s housing needs as it faces an increasing affordability and inequity crisis.

“Everybody is worried about affordability and a lack of housing, and we certainly don’t want to be at odds with that,” Johnston said. “We plan to have stakeholder engagement around those specific elements to see if we can address that creatively, and try to ensure we’re not incentivizing single-family homes over small-scale, ‘missing middle’ (housing) projects.”

Staffers will return to the Environmental Commission with formalized recommendations in two separate proposals sometime this fall, and aim to make their way to Council by the end of the year.

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