Sunday, August 18, 2002
Want to avert a disaster? Forget Stratus and fix the
EDITOR, AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN
The Austin City Council spent many hours this summer
the bitter, hollow exercise of reconsidering the city's agreement
allowing Stratus Properties to develop 1,273 acres of
environmentally sensitive land in Southwest Austin under stringent
Save Our Springs standards. It was an issue that legally, morally
and rationally could only have been resolved one way, which was to
keep the city's word and affirm the deal. The council ultimately did
this, by a vote of 6-1.
The council would be wise to concentrate on the city
year, and for years to come, financial decisions will have
consequences for the quality of water in Barton Springs and
throughout the region -- consequences at least as important as
development over and near the Edwards Aquifer.
One week after the vote, a reminder of ominous threats
environment arrived. Tests of sediment in the Barton Springs Pool
have on occasion shown elevated levels of an oil-based chemical.
Based on repeated exposure over many years, this chemical increases
the risk of cancer, according to state guidelines.
There is no immediate health threat. The data obtained
scientists were merely a wake-up call.
The likely source of the chemical?
Not Stratus or other development to the southwest, but
water running off the streets, parking lots and hillsides of the
old, graceful neighborhood of Barton Hills -- much as what occurs in
every center-city neighborhood nearly every day.
The appearance of benzo(a)pyrene in the pool was a punch
gut. Council needs to address the repair and replacement of the
city's aging sewer mains. It also needs to consider storm sewers,
culverts, retention ponds and the absence of grassy buffers along
many of our creeks and streams.
Few benefits accrue to politicians who tear up streets.
the anger over the streets closed for construction of the CSC
buildings downtown? Well, what the city found there was, in the
words of City Manager Toby Futrell, "utility hell" amid the
crumbling, mismatched, 90-year-old pipes.
If we neglect the sewage pipes, bacteria will bloom in
If we fail to install and repair storm sewers, do
channel work on
creeks and tributaries and build detention ponds and buffer zones,
then we will see fertilizers, motor oil, asphalt and vehicle
exhaust emissions add carcinogens to our waters.
The average customer spends $42 a month for Austin water
sewage service. That includes about 90 cents tacked on by the
council in 1998 to finance $65 million in bonds that allowed the
city to acquire ownership or control of 15,000 acres to the
southwest. This removed the land from the path of developers.
We supported those acquisitions. In the future, we're
to support development-restricting easements that don't take the
land off tax rolls. But for this year and probably for several years
to come, the city needs to stop buying land or easements and devote
all the money from water and storm sewage fees, aided by general
fund monies, to pay the huge, looming costs for infrastructure.
"It is time for (the water and wastewater utility) to
the core business," said Futrell.
How huge are the costs? In the past five years, the city
spent an average of $9 million to $10 million a year on sewage
pipes. The estimated price tag for the next five years: $150
Yet, that's a modest amount compared with the estimated
storm water controls. Consider that the city has a master plan for
only one-third of our watershed. Just to "build out" the plan for
that one-third would cost $800 million. That ignores the other two-
Count on fees for wastewater and storm sewers to go up
to pay for
If we don't accelerate spending for these pipes and
soon will approach environmental disaster. And it won't come from
the southwest. It will come from here at home in Austin.