News

Oak Hill Parkway “reluctantly” funded by City of Austin

Save Barton Creek Association continues to be concerned about TxDOT’s plan for the Oak Hill Parkway (reconstruction of US 290/SH 71 near the Oak Hill “Y”).

Recently, on January 31st, Austin’s city council voted 8 to 2 (with one member absent and not voting) to execute a construction agreement (MOU) with TxDOT and authorized $3.3 million in required local contribution towards the $500 million project. The Austin Monitor aptly reported that the “City reluctantly fulfills legal obligation.”

The MOU reflected some of the points SBCA made in an October letter to City Council and other SBCA proposals to further protect Williamson Creek and Barton Springs. We are grateful to City staff and leaders for their work on this agreement and for incorporating many many of SBCA’s suggestions. We see its passage as a a step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, the MOU didn’t address our biggest concerns– the scale of the project and the inclusion of excavation which imperil the environment. In other words, the project design remains deeply flawed.

SBCA has engaged a lawyer, Mr. Jeff Appel, who’s initial memo to us found “found significant areas of concern regarding how this NEPA process proceeded and the results thereof.” Mr. Appel continues to analyze the facts, but we were glad to see that he shared our concern over the fact that the NEPA process for this project was undertaken for an entirely different project– a toll road.

This fact is responsible for the overbuilt project before us.

The proposed project footprint continues as 12 lanes wide (six freeway lanes and six frontage road lanes), forcing removal of nearly 300 heritage trees. Of great concern to neighbors, there is over a mile of an elevated section that threatens substantial noise and visual impacts.

Further west along US 290, TxDOT proposes digging into  limestone rock to build a “depressed” section. This ‘Great Ditch of Oak Hill’ would be 2.65 miles long, averaging 25 feet deep and 150 feet wide.

This feature of TxDOT’s plan is SBCA’s greatest concern. In December, the drilling of a single geothermal well into the aquifer was enough to turn Barton Springs cloudy and close it to swimmers. Imagine what the much larger disturbances planned by TxDOT could do. The planned excavation would mine the aquifer contributing and recharge zones, removing 53 million cubic feet of earth and rubble.

It’s no wonder that 10 environmental and neighborhood organizations signed a letter in December in opposition to the project. And also no wonder that Austin City Council members showed discomfort with the project at the January 31st vote.

In December, the US 290 project received final environmental clearance from Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), the same agency that commissioned it. No surprises, except the timing of the announcement was late Friday afternoon before the Christmas holiday, which guaranteed little to no press coverage.

In what was being treated as mere formality — because an earlier tolled road plan was already approved — the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) voted to fund the Oak Hill Parkway project January 15th .

TxDOT has encountered several caves in its current work on the intersections of Mopac, the most significant cave on South Mopac at La Crosse. Given the karst limestone geology, we can expect such inevitable “surprises” occurring with an Oak Hill excavation too.

City council heard at their meeting from many concerned citizens about the project’s impact on the environment. The good news is that, on Mayor Pro-tem Tovo gave staff direction to stay engaged with TxDOT and community groups about the project’s design for further beneficial improvements.

SBCA continues to work for a better design to adequately safeguard a future for our Springs, and our other natural treasures.

For information on  legal issues with the TxDOT plan see here.

For an alternative that  respects the trees of Oak Hill, Williamson Creek, and Barton Springs, see here.

New Year Message from Craig Smith

A message from SBCA Board Vice President, Craig Smith–

I hope that you are having a happy New Year.  At the start of 2019, I’d like to recap of the challenges to the health of our drinking water aquifers in the past year and suggest how I think that they could be met.  It is my aspiration, not prediction, for the future. SBCA is glad to have your help in the effort to reach it.

In the past year, like every year before, it seems, the drinking water aquifers of Central Texas – the bountiful Edwards Aquifer that curves from Salado through Austin and San Antonio west to Brackettville, and the Trinity Aquifer beneath and west of the Edwards  —- have been under stress from the growing population living over and drinking from them. While growth was once welcomed as an unquestionable benefit, more and more people are becoming aware of the risks that our aquifers and other water supplies could become polluted or depleted as a result of the growth, which would impair the economy and quality of life that brought us all here.

In nearly every situation, there are smart ways to accommodate the growth while preserving the natural values.  To find our way to those solutions, we have to engage in the kind of inclusive community dialogue that has been used before to address environmental challenges like those we face now.

Here is my recap of the current challenges. 

Wastewater Management

The greatest recent threat to the health of the aquifers is the increased willingness to allow the discharge of treated sewage, generated by the thousands of new homes on the western edge of the urban corridor, into the Hill Country creeks that recharge the aquifers with little filtering of the pollution.  Long prohibited in the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone where surface water enters the aquifer directly through caves and fissures, and formerly also unknown in the contributing zone where water flows down the creeks to become recharge, the discharge of wastewater has both old and new dangers for the aquifers.  It is long known that wastewater, even after conventional treatment, has levels of nutrients far above the natural loads of the creeks, which causes proliferation of algae and depletion of the dissolved oxygen in the water.  We are more recently aware of the risks of new contaminants unique to wastewater, including pharmaceuticals and hormones, that could have undetermined effects and are not detected or addressed in ordinary sewage treatment.

Despite the risks, the sensible but non-binding inhibition against discharging sewage in the aquifer contributing zones has begun to erode.  First, the Belterra subdivision, just across the Travis-Hays County line, received a permit to discharge its wastewater into Bear Creek, after a vigorous contest at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).  Strict requirements were put into the final permit, so that no discharge has actually occurred so far.

But that regulatory resolve has relaxed.  Late in 2018, the City of Dripping Springs won a bigger permit from TCEQ to discharge to Onion Creek, the contributor of the greatest amount of recharge to the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer, despite strong opposition.  A settlement agreement with the Barton Springs Aquifer District and some of the other opponents assures that there will be no discharge until the treatment plant’s capacity grows to four times its current production, and a wastewater commission will seek ways to avoid any discharge even after that capacity is reached.

However, it is plain that the regulatory protection of the aquifers has weakened in the current climate of laxity at both the federal and state levels.  Other discharge applications are currently pending, including one to discharge to Barton Creek and one by the little town of Blanco asking for a permit to dump its waste into the pristine river for which it is named and is the basis of its tourist and retirement economy.  Without state standards that are adequate to protect the water quality of the creeks, each of these applications must be fought one at a time.  Often the best achievable outcome is a settlement that puts conditions and strict standards on the permitted discharge.

Save Barton Creek Association and our partners are part of the No Dumping Sewage Coalition, continuing to work on these challenges.

Groundwater Pumping

Just as the growing population has increased the amount of wastewater that must be managed, it has increased the demand for water for drinking, watering lawns, and other residential and commercial uses.  With the firm yield pumping of the Edwards Aquifer capped in both the Barton Springs and the San Antonio segments, the demand has recently turned to the Trinity Aquifer.

Two contested pumping applications are currently pending at the Barton Springs Aquifer District that ask for permits to withdraw large amounts of groundwater from the lightly used Trinity, which is generally produces less water than the Edwards.  The water is meant to supply demand in the IH-35 urban corridor or other unstated uses.  Nearby landowners, many of who moved from cities because they prize the rural beauty and lifestyle, have objected that the pumping could deplete their own wells.

The San Antonio Water System and others are looking to meet their customers’ demand by importing water through expensive pipelines from the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer to the east.  The people who live in those areas are wondering what that could mean for them and their long-term future.

Land Development and Highways

The engine of this increased water demand and wastewater production is, of course, the booming economy of Central Texas that is attracting hundreds of new residents every week.  Many of them are also drawn here by the same natural beauty that the defenders want to protect.  The subdivisions where they settle continue to proliferate, often outside of Austin’s jurisdiction and subject to less stringent requirements.  I used to know their ironic names: Caliterra, The Headwaters, Scenic Greens, but I can no longer keep up with them all.  The new Hill Country residents must have highways, such as the nearly finished State Hwy. 45 SW and the proposed Oak Hill Parkway, to bring them into the city.

These new Central Texans do not mean to harm the environment, even if that is the effect.  The problem is caused by following the prevailing suburban development pattern that does not seem to have changed much in 50 years, which disturbs far more land than is needed for the homes, requires many miles of roads, and pays little attention to the effects on the watersheds.

Climate Change

As if the other challenges were not enough, there is no longer any reasonable doubt that the global climate is warming, fueled by man-made greenhouse gases that exceed the highest historic and even post-glacial levels.  Predictions are that the coming years, starting right away, will bring both longer droughts and greater floods than we have planned for.  The updated historic rainfall map known as Atlas 14 shows that many existing developments, including expensive subdivisions, are already subject to flooding in the increasingly common heavy rains.  Just as disturbing as that is the increased chance of another multi-year drought, perhaps longer than the drought of the 1950’s that is still deemed to be the “drought of record.”

Solutions

So, what are the solutions to these challenges?

For the management of wastewater, there are several technical options that are less damaging than direct discharge to waterways.  Land application, through drip or spray irrigation, is the one that has been the prevailing technology in the Hill Country until recently.  Treated wastewater can also be reused for a variety of purposes that do not require drinking-quality water, notably landscape irrigation.  This can convert what was considered a nuisance into a valuable commodity in a dry land.  On a subdivision or neighborhood scale, wastewater can be treated in low-density suburban areas on a distributed basis, without the expensive centralized infrastructure that is needed to bring it all to a central plant for treatment before disposal or reuse.

To protect our aquifers from depletion, we could determine the sustainable yield of each one: the amount that it could be expected to produce in a recurrence of the drought of record, with a safety margin to protect springs and allow for the warming climate.  This has been done for the Barton Springs and San Antonio segments of the Edwards Aquifer and was the basis for the caps that the Barton Springs Aquifer District and the Edwards Aquifer Authority have put on “firm yield,” pumping, the amount that may be withdrawn from the Edwards in a severe drought.  Similar determinations could be made for each of the aquifers and then translated into pumping caps to avoid the consequences of depletion, including springflow reduction and interference with existing wells.  Drought contingency plans and monitor wells could assure that critical water levels are not reached.  Additional demands would have to be met by more efficiently using existing supplies and finding alternative sources, such as rainwater, reused wastewater, and brackish groundwater that can be desalinated.  Any proposal for importing water needs to carefully consider and respect the needs of the source region.

Our ever-growing population could be mainly accommodated within the footprint of our existing cities and towns, without continuing to gobble up more and more of the countryside, if we abandoned unsuitable development patterns.  Many previous community visioning efforts, from Envision Central Texas to Imagine Austin, have laid out a plan of denser, better connected urban centers along IH-35, surrounded by self-sustaining towns and lots of open space, as the region’s preferred growth pattern.  We could, and have, set aside some of our most prized areas, including riparian corridors and spring recharge features, to protect them from disturbance because they are essential to preserving the natural processes.

Global warming is an unprecedented challenge to our survival as the human species. While it will undoubtedly change the way we will live in ways that we cannot foresee now, one sensible response to the immediate prediction of longer droughts and bigger floods is to be prepared to capture and store some of the floodwater for use during the droughts. Aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) is a system for harvesting surplus groundwater or surface water during wet times and injecting it into a less-used aquifer, from which it can be withdrawn without significant loss when needed to supplement current supplies. The San Antonio Water System, City of Buda, Barton Springs Aquifer District, and others are exploring the feasibility of ASR in the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer, Trinity Aquifer, and the saline portion of the Edwards Aquifer east of the “bad water line.”  ASR has two big advantages over a reservoir on the surface: it does not require flooding (and therefore buying) large areas of valuable land, and it is immune from evaporation, which in summer can consume more water from a lake than a city uses.

How To Get There

So how do we get to these sustainable solutions?  Because that is a question of our collective will, it can only be accomplished through dialogue, an honest and inclusive exchange about interests and values and practical ways to achieve them.  There are successful local examples of that kind of dialogue, in which a structured and sustained effort to find consensus has produced a solution, or at least a partial solution, that has endured.  These could become the models for addressing each of our challenges.

One example is the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan (BCCP), the plan that led to the lifting of most of the development restrictions of the Endangered Species Act in western Travis County in exchange for the creation of preserves for the endangered golden-cheeked warbler and the black-capped vireo, now recovered enough to be removed from the list.  The BCCP has certainly not stopped growth, as some opponents predicted, but the preserves that were created have become some of the last open space near to Austin, enclaves of nature on the edge of the city.

Another example is the Regional Water Quality Protection Plan for the Barton Springs Segment of the Edwards Aquifer, in which 13 local governments, backed by a wide variety of stakeholder groups, came together to support a plan to set aside preserve land and concentrate new growth in the existing developed areas in order to protect the creeks and the aquifer.  While it did not address all of the important issues, notably omitting wastewater management, which was not seen as a big problem at the time, and it has not been followed equally in every jurisdiction, the Regional Plan has nevertheless remained the guiding vision of how the Hill Country can grow and still protect its natural heritage.

I suggest that these examples could be followed in order to build agreement on how to deal with each of the conflicts between growth and the environment.  Through that approach, I think that we can protect our aquifers and water supplies even as the region continues to grow.

-Craig Smith

SBCA, Vice President of the Board

SBCA is Seeking a Graphic Designer

We are searching for a graphic designer to help us create our new Explorer’s Guide to the Hill Country Oasis. Please read over our Request for Proposals, and let our Executive Director, Angela Richter, know if you are interested in working with us by January 20. We look forward to hearing from you!

RFP Graphic Design_SaveBartonCreekAssn

Annual Party is November 19th

It’s that time of year again. SBCA is busy preparing for our annual membership party on Monday November 19th at 6:00 pm at Zilker Clubhouse and holding our membership drive. The party has music, BBQ, and a bar. We encourage you to renew your membership online before the party.  Membership donations start at $25. Inspired by our work and want to make a larger contribution? We encourage you to sponsor the party for $250 or greater.

Sponsors who donate by November 9th will be listed in our annual report and will be thanked at the party.

We hope to see you at there and thanks for your continued support!

Sincerely,
Angela

Angela Richter
Executive Director

Hill Country Conservancy Celebrates Puryear Ranch Conservation Easement

 

Image Credit: Hill Country Conservancy

 

 

On Saturday, September 22 the Hill Country Conservancy celebrated the acquisition of their new conservation easement holding, the Puryear Ranch. Puryear Ranch lies in the Texas Hill Country of southwestern Travis County. It is located within the contributing zone of the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer, specifically containing over a mile of Rocky Creek which is a major tributary to Barton Creek. Preservation of the Puryear Ranch in an undeveloped state will help protect the quantity and quality of recharge to both the Upper Trinity Aquifer and Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer. Both of these aquifers are important for ecological, recreational, and water-supply uses and are described as “tributary aquifers,” ultimately contributing important flows to the Colorado River.

 

The City of Austin’s Water Quality Protection Lands also serve to protect the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer. Join the Wildlands Conservation Division for the 20th Anniversary Celebration of the WQPL program on Saturday, October 6. Learn more and register for the event here.

Fecal Bacteria Pollution in 60% of Austin Waterways

Yuck! Environment Texas recently put out a report on bacteria pollution in Texas waterways. They found that  60 percent of testing sites at Austin waterways had unsafe bacteria at least once in 2017. Luckily Barton Creek and Barton Springs were not among the affected waterways–yet. Other Austin waterways like Shoal and Waller Creek were affected.

It is clear that the protections we’ve worked for in the Barton Springs Zone are working. However, a clear Barton Springs can’t be taken for granted. Urban run-off, leaky sewage pipes, and sewage spills can all cause bacteria pollution.

“Sewage plants that pipe treated effluent directly into our creeks and rivers pose a significant risk to our waterways,” said Angela Richter, Executive Director of Save Barton Creek Association. “When operation of the plant fails, and Texas has a bad record of plant failures, bacteria like e-coli can enter local creeks.”

Read full press release and report here.

New Education Program Coordinator

Help us welcome Teresa Johnson to the SBCA team! Teresa earned her Master’s in Environmental Management & Sustainability from St. Edward’s University and a BS in Natural Resources Conservation from the University of Massachusetts. She has previous experience leading environmental education programming. Teresa is passionate about fostering a connection to the environment in others and believes empowering local communities is essential to sustainable conservation.

SBCA in Contested Case Hearing over Dripping Springs Wastewater Permit

March 7, 2018

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

 

Questions to:

Angela Richter, Executive Director, Save Barton Creek Association 512-480-0055, angela@savebartoncreek.org

 

 

Dripping Springs Permit Referred to Contested Case Hearing

 

(AUSTIN) – A state agency decided this morning (March 7th) who can challenge a controversial plan allowing Dripping Springs to dump nearly a million gallons of treated sewage a day into Onion Creek, a major source of water for Austin’s famous Barton Springs.

 

TCEQ commissioners will allow Save Barton Creek Association, Protect Our Water, Save Our Springs Alliance, and several individual landowners to participate in the hearing. They also agreed that the City of Austin could proceed to the hearing for a determination of their affected status.

 

The hearing will be complete 180 days after the preliminary hearing, which is likely to be set for approximately 45 days from today. TCEQ will hear arguments for and against the proposed sewage permit. The state agency can then either grant or deny the permit or change its terms.

 

Groups have many concerns about the plan including pollution of groundwater in the environmentally sensitive Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer. A campaign at nodrippingsewage.org revolves around a petition against piped sewage into creeks across the region and the slogan “There’s a better way.”

PRESS RELEASE: State May Allow Landowners, Citizens to Fight Dripping Sewage Plans

February 20, 2018

 

           FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

State May Allow Landowners, Citizens to Fight Dripping Sewage Plans

(AUSTIN) – A state agency is considering who can challenge a controversial plan allowing Dripping Springs to dump nearly a million gallons of treated sewage a day into Onion Creek, a major source of water for Austin’s famous Barton Springs.

The Dripping Springs city government contends only very few individuals living near the sewage plant are affected. This sets the stage for a battle to be waged before the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and in the courts over who has “standing” to be heard in the pollution case.

TCEQ’s governing board will make a decision on who can participate in the case at its March 7th public meeting. If anyone gets excluded, they can sue in civil court to be admitted into the process. This could be the opening skirmish in a long legal struggle.

Once the groups that have standing are decided, TCEQ will hear arguments for and against the proposed sewage permit. The state agency can then either grant or deny the permit or change its terms.

Several citizen groups opposing the discharge scheme are organized under a banner of “No Dripping Sewage.” Coalition members include Save Barton Creek Association, Wimberley Valley Watershed Association, Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, and Clean Water Action. The campaign at nodrippingsewage.org revolves around a petition against piped sewage into creeks across the region and the slogan “There’s a better way.”

Both the TCEQ executive director and its in-house public interest attorney agree that citizen groups including Save Barton Creek Association, Save Our Springs Alliance, Protect Our Water, and some Hays County residents are “affected persons” who should be allowed into the process.

However, agency officials disagree among themselves about whether some local governments should be heard. The director would exclude Austin’s city government, and the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District (BSEACD) that protects groundwater.

The TCEQ Office of Public Interest Counsel (OPIC) disagrees, saying both Austin and BSEACD should be allowed to state their case before the commission’s governing board.

Clark Hancock, president of Save Barton Creek Association (SBCA) says “Half a million visits to Barton Springs each year demonstrate that this special place is near and dear to the people of Austin and beyond.”

“All legitimate interests need to be included in the TCEQ hearings,” Hancock said.  “A full airing of issues before the commission is needed for the credibility of the process and to avoid other litigation. We want to achieve the best outcome for everyone involved—including Dripping Springs.”

 

Questions to:

Angela Richter, Executive Director, Save Barton Creek Association 512-480-0055angela@savebartoncreek.org

#GiveBartonCreek

 

As the year draws to a close, we would like to say thank you. Thank you for your enthusiasm and your generosity!

 

With the holidays approaching, we ask that you please remember Save Barton Creek Association in your holiday plans. In support of our work, please become a member of SBCA today. Generous donors like you are key to our success protecting Austin’s creeks and watersheds.

 

Thank you for your support,

Angela Richter
Executive Director