The City of Austin is undergoing a land development code rewrite, called CodeNEXT. The land development code is a rule-book for allowable development. This affects a multitude of human and environmental issues including water quality in our creeks, our future water supply, and has the potential to prevent disastrous floods like the devastating Onion Creek disaster.
We submitted the letter below to Austin City Council on May 3 and have been continuously advocating for better water policy through this process.
May 3, 2018
To: Mayor Steve Adler, Austin City Council, Planning Commission, Zoning and Platting Commission, cc: Chuck Lesniak, Mike Personett, Matt Hollan, Erin Wood
RE: Drainage, Water Quality, and Water Supply Issues in CodeNEXT Draft 3
Mayor Adler, Austin City Councilors, and Commissioners,
Please consider Save Barton Creek Association’s recommendations to CodeNEXT below; Shape our sustainable water future by preventing localized flooding, protecting water quality, and promoting water conservation. We ask that you take seriously this once in a generation opportunity to make Austin’s water infrastructure resilient to climate change and to use growth as a solution to water supply and flood problems. It is remarkable, yet thusfar untapped, that we are undergoing a land development code rewrite (CodeNEXT) and 100 year water plan (Water Forward) simultaneously.
Austin is located in flash flood alley, due to local topography and rainfall patterns, and our susceptibility to floods and drought are increasing due to climate change. Our city is already dealing with localized flooding because our creeks and pipes are no match for large storms combined with current development patterns and regulatory framework. Overland flow and conveyance during these heavy rain events also carries pollutants and nutrients that degrade local ecosystems. Residents know from experience that several times a year during multi-day heavy rain events, our current regulations are not enough. We also know that population growth combined with climate change amplified drought puts our water supply at risk.
There are opportunities to meet these challenges through a new land development code; We present our latest recommendations below.
SBCA’s recommendations to drafts 1 and 2 of CodeNEXT, through letters to City Council and staff and through commenting directly on the code via the online tool, were not heeded. Our organization is still deciding whether to support the code. We strongly urge you to make the following changes before it is adopted.
Save Barton Creek Association
Questions or comments may be directed to SBCA Executive Director, Angela Richter at email@example.com
- Retain more water on-site and encourage beneficial use. This should be accomplished by restoring a provision similar to the “Beneficial Use of Stormwater” requirement in prior drafts of the code which stated that “a portion of the required water quality must be retained and beneficially reused on-site.” The Environmental Commission’s April 18th resolution on CodeNEXT states that “The Environmental Commission recommends that staff coordinate with the Water Forward Task Force to come up with an appropriate water quality volume for beneficial and auxiliary use.” We support this to the extent that the Water Forward Task Force is able to come up with recommendations that will be approved with CodeNEXT. We are concerned with the decades long timelines that Water Forward originally proposed. We support the earlier proposal that retention volume be equal to required water quality volume. Currently, stormwater is detained and released downstream 48 hours later. Without an on-site retention requirement, we are not meeting important goals such as enhancing creek baseflow, and promoting beneficial reuse of stormwater to conserve potable water.
- Require Developments 5,000 sq ft and greater to treat for water quality. “Applicability for water quality control standards” should be changed from 8,000 sq ft to 5,000 sq ft (23-3D-6010).
The current 8,000 sq ft trigger for water quality control requirements is arbitrary, while 5,000 sq ft was originally recommended by Austin Watershed Protection Staff in 2013. Staff originally recommended this threshold for three reasons: (1) The City of Austin used this threshold for projects in urban watersheds. (2) 5,000 square feet is the threshold beyond which a Site Plan is required for site development. The Site Plan process offers a systematic means of evaluating development elements, including grading, drainage, and water quality controls. And, (3) Many other national entities including the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), State of Maryland, San Francisco, Washington DC, and Philadelphia have also selected the 5,000 square foot of impervious cover threshold. Other entities have selected lower for example Seattle at 2,000 and Portland at 500 square feet. The Environmental Commission also made this recommendation in their April 18th 2018 CodeNEXT resolution. The transition from sand filters to Green Stormwater Infrastructure in CodeNEXT make water quality controls more compatible with smaller developments. They can be a part of the aesthetic and landscaping rather than a piece of the property to be set-aside out of view.
- Expand the use of Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI) controls to treat residential subdivisions including roads.
Green Stormwater Infrastructure is very appropriate for a residential context. GSI can turn water quality treatment into amenity. We believe that with thoughtful regulation, GSI in residential areas would work well. Clustered GSI (at least 4 lots) in a dedicated common area or drainage easement is currently an option for residential subdivisions in the environmental criteria manual (ECM 1.6.7.H). The code should make this the primary water quality treatment method in residential subdivisions, with sand filters allowed in certain circumstances.
By not encouraging GSI in subdivisions, we are also losing the opportunity to use GSI such as bioswales along new roadways. Most new roads being built in the city are within subdivisions. For newly built streets, bioswales can be incorporated as landscaping and be designed to interact with sidewalks, bike lanes, and utilities. These planted areas can have numerous benefits from water quality treatment, a safety buffer between pedestrians and cars, superior aesthetics, and ecosystem services. Expanding GSI is exactly the kind of multi-benefit policy that should be incorporated in our new Land Development Code.
- Remove exemptions to impervious cover limits in the redevelopment exceptions throughout the water quality section (23-3D-2030, etc) for all watersheds. Redevelopments should adhere to their zoning, including impervious cover Currently, redevelopments are exempt from current impervious cover limits, assuming they treat for water quality for the redeveloped portion of the site. To illustrate the importance of this, we are likely to have much redevelopment along major corridors such as Lamar and Burnet Rd. These areas have very high impervious cover, were largely built before the 1992 watershed ordinance, and contribute significantly to flooding. As currently drafted, redeveloping properties have to use water quality controls on the redeveloped area but are exempt from impervious cover limits and other water quality protection standards if they do not increase impervious cover. These properties must do their part in the future to reduce flood and water quality risks.
- Coordinate with Water Forward to Reduce Water Demand. We see a tremendous opportunity to synchronize the land-development recommendations of Water Forward with CodeNEXT. Given their limited quantity, it would be efficient to target the few Water Forward recommendations that should be accomplished through a land development code. We are concerned about Water Forward’s decades-long implementation timeline. These important strategies may even remain in plan only, if we do not incorporate them into CodeNEXT now. It also does not make sense to pass a land development code knowing several sections will soon need to be amended.
To align with Water Forward, CodeNEXT should:
- Implement a “landscape transformation ordinance” that includes “residential landscape regulations that limit irrigable area.” Water Forward states that “Implementation of this option could include implementing turf grass area, irrigated area, and/or irrigation area limitations.”
- Include “alternative water ordinance” and “AC condensate reuse ordinances.” An AC condensate reuse ordinance could require collection and use of AC condensate in MF/COM/COA buildings greater than 50,000 sq. ft. “Alternative Water Ordinances” are vague in Water Forward but would “require alternative water use such as rainwater and stormwater harvesting. Adding back the “beneficial use of stormwater” requirement would be a good first step.
- Implement the “Duel plumbing ordinance” now. Water Forward currently plans to implement phase 1 of this by 2023 and Phase 2 by 2032. This will exclude a lot of development that we will see between now and 3032. We need to work toward climate resilience now by instituting this with CodeNEXT. Water Forward is currently vague about what buildings would be required to install dual plumbing. We should move to 100% of buildings to duel plumbing, but would support CodeNEXT trying this in select buildings first; for example, for buildings over 10,000 sq ft.
- Save Water on Irrigation. Irrigation Requirements should reduce rather than increase water demand. A one-size fits all approach to irrigation, with the singular goal of keeping plants alive, is at direct odds with our water conservation goal to reduce water demand through Water Forward. The commercial irrigation requirements in draft 3 of CodeNEXT are likely to transform previously unirrigated areas associated with old commercial establishments into irrigated area as new development occurs.
- Add “areas with drought tolerant or native landscapes, that have inlets to receive stormwater, and are watered for establishment,” to the list of planted areas that do not require permanent irrigation. Right now, “No permanent irrigation is required for the following: (1) undisturbed natural areas; (2) undisturbed natural trees; (3) areas that have been revegetated with native seed and that are irrigated by temporary irrigation during the establishment period.”
- Remove “plants and” from this statement: “at a minimum plants and all new trees must be irrigated for establishment during the first 18 months by one of the following” (23-4E-4170 (A)) It makes sense to keep the 18 month irrigation requirement for trees which require a longer establishment period compared to other plants, provide more ecosystem services, and are more costly to replace.
- Improve clarity by bringing some basic irrigation requirements from the Environmental Criteria Manual into the Code such as that the irrigation requirement can be met with a hose connection in certain cases.
Other Code Changes:
We present the following other recommendations for your consideration.
- We support the Environmental Commission’s Recommendation (April 18th) that “City staff draft a provision that requires best management practices to address property where the primary use is a dog park.”
- We support the Environmental Commission recommendation (April 18th) to “extending cut and fill requirements and construction on slope regulations to developments in the Urban Watershed, and directs staff to develop variance criteria to address cut and fill for foundation systems and underground parking.”
- We support the Environmental Commission recommendation (April 18th) to “Direct staff to develop a program to apply the Functional Green Scoring system to all landscapes, regardless of impervious cover, to ensure that we are maximizing the benefits to be achieved via landscaping requirements and to ensure simplicity and consistency.”
- More clarity is needed on under which circumstances the regional stormwater management option is applicable.
- Remove barriers to indoor beneficial reuse in section 23-10D (Reclaimed water). The Reclaimed Water section right now seems to only refer to city purple pipe while it should also include rules for water collected on-site.
- Include a clear definition of Green Stormwater Infrastructure as a water quality control in the code.
- Before adoption of the code, stakeholders should also be told what the timeline and process will be for updating the technical manuals.
We support that the code:
- Maintains protections from the 2013 Watershed Protection Ordinance and voter-approved Save Our Springs Initiative including standards in the Barton Springs Zone of the Edwards Aquifer. (23-3D-9)
- Adds the Functional Green Requirement to require green infrastructure in urban settings where traditional landscape requirements are not possible. (23-4E-4120)
- Adds new requirement that sites performing grading must protect soils from compaction or restore compacted soils after construction. (23-3D-7050(C))
- Adds GSI methods to landscaping and water quality requirements
SBCA also helped draft and support “Community Priorities for CodeNEXT” a document written and supported by a diverse stakeholder group including several environmental organizations. SBCA looks forward to reading the draft of CodeNEXT, the City of Austin’s land development code rewrite, and measuring it by the benchmarks in the document. SBCA is particularly interested that CodeNEXT ” shall reduce climate change, increase resilience, reduce the urban heat island effect, and preserve and restore our natural environment,” and “shall require that new and redevelopment mitigate and reduce flooding, runoff pollution, and downstream erosion.”
Save Barton Creek Association will continue to provide feedback to the CodeNEXT process to ensure a healthy environment for all Austinites.