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Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2002

Sunday, August 18, 2002

Want to avert a disaster? Forget Stratus and fix the pipes Rich Oppel,

The Austin City Council spent many hours this summer engaged in 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 budget. This 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 facing our 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 from city scientists were merely a wake-up call.

The likely source of the chemical?

Not Stratus or other development to the southwest, but probably 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 in the 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. Remember 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 our drinking water.

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 and 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 more likely 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 focus on the core business," said Futrell.

How huge are the costs? In the past five years, the city has spent an average of $9 million to $10 million a year on sewage pipes. The estimated price tag for the next five years: $150 million.

Yet, that's a modest amount compared with the estimated cost of 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- thirds.

Count on fees for wastewater and storm sewers to go up to pay for construction borrowing.

If we don't accelerate spending for these pipes and ponds, we soon will approach environmental disaster. And it won't come from the southwest. It will come from here at home in Austin.

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