LCRA drops development limits

Hill Country projects can tie into water lines by meeting new state rules.

Dear FA Friends, Neighbors and Members,

From Tuesday’s Statesman is a damning article that typifies the LCRA’s bait and switch behavior we’ve observed these past few years. While we often find words like “bait and switch” to be hyperbole or inappropriate, in this case it is simply the truth, plainly spoken. We cannot begin to chronicle the number of meetings in the LCRA boardroom and elsewhere that we attended with staff and/or GM Joe Beal, where we were assured that these new pipelines would require specific rules to be followed in order to receive water. And now we are left with a veritable free for all of development regs for all comers getting LCRA water in the Hill Country.

Granted, the LCRA points out and has pointed out in the past, that regs and enforcement of them should be a local government issue, but it has been their pipelines that have caused the urgent need for these regs. And it has been their disingenuous reassurances to the community about their own committment to us, that worked to minimize objections, as they sought to mollify the community rejections of their plans. At this they succeeded, as citizens who were unfamiliar with the histrorical mendacity of the LCRA acquiesced in the wake of their false assurances. Now, our over-developed roads will be littered with their lies.

Sadly, we all recognize the need for water out here, whether by rain collection, well or surface supply. But, unlike the financially motivated LCRA, we who live here tend to understand that there is a solid relationship between planned growth and its localized economic and environmental benefits and an obverse relationship with unplanned growth, it’s associated sprawl and subsequent negative affects on our schools, tax base, home values and environment. Neither of these relationships actually matter to the LCRA. What does matter to them is simply having more paying customers, which puts them in direct opposition with planning. The LCRA has paid lip-service to our concerns for five years now and their true ideals and unprincipled approach is now laid bare in the wake of USFWS abdication of oversight to the TCEQ. While the article makes it sound as though “new state rules” will takeover, what it fails to explain is that these “state rules” are virtually non-existant and unenforced, leftover in the backroom deal cut between Washington and Texas to abandon US Fish & Wildlife Service monitoring of our area to the TCEQ. Again, a reality that does not mean “local control” as it should, but rather state sponsored abandonment of protection guidelines for the Hil Country, as it relates to LCRA provided water. This ultimately becomes a massive state “agency” sponsored subsidy of LCRA infrastructure for developers.

Support for and institution of our Regional Water Quality Planning project of the last year is now more critical than ever. It is now up to Dripping, Hays County and other municipalites to fill the glaring vacuum left in the wake of the LCRA. Please read on.

LOWER COLORADO RIVER AUTHORITY http://www.statesman.com/news/content/auto/epaper/editions/tuesday/news_243da67da0fe6230001a.html

LCRA drops development limits Hill Country projects can tie into water lines by meeting new state rules.

By Stephen Scheibal AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF Tuesday, July 12, 2005 For years, the Lower Colorado River Authority has dictated the laws of the land in Central Texas: If you wanted its water, you followed its rules.

Since 2000, the agency has required developers in environmentally sensitive parts of the Hill Country to follow federal standards limiting the density of houses, roads and other hard surfaces.

But federal regulators are no longer enforcing those limits, so neither is the LCRA, a move that has some people fearing for the health of endangered species, particularly the Barton Springs salamander.

The river authority announced last week that it will no longer require builders to meet limits on pavement or building cover. To get water service, developers now will follow new state standards that don’t cap such density.

The change marks the first ? and, perhaps, most meaningful ? fallout from a recent decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to allow state environmental officials to enforce new standards that lack restrictions the agency once considered critical for protecting endangered species.

“It’s significant, and it is troubling,” said Daryl Slusher, a former Austin City Council member who helped lead a Central Texas planning effort that looked at environmental protections.

LCRA spokesman Robert Cullick said his agency, which manages water resources in the Colorado River basin, cannot block development that environmental regulators allow or impose restrictions that environmental agencies will not.

“The federal government has determined they’re not necessary,” Cullick said.

Limits that guided development by LCRA customers for a half-decade centered on the Barton Springs salamander, which lives only in Austin’s iconic swimming hole and went on the federal endangered species list in 1997.

Rainwater runoff flows across a 371-square-mile watershed along the Travis-Hays county line before percolating into the underground aquifer that feeds Barton Springs.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is charged with enforcing the Endangered Species Act and protecting the salamander. Regulators previously used limits on pavement and other forms of impervious cover in the watershed to maintain the quality of water flowing into Barton Springs.

Environmentalists and many scientists believe such hard surfaces can create pollution themselves or attract it from vehicles and other sources, plus make it easier for the pollution to enter water streams through stormwater runoff.

This year, the Fish and Wildlife Service recognized a set of optional standards that were drafted, and will be enforced, by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

The new standards do not limit impervious cover. However, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the state environmental commission have said they will be sufficient to protect water quality in the watershed.

Developers who abide by the standards ? which the state considers optional ? will be judged to have not harmed the salamander. Those who don’t abide could go through an environmental review with federal regulators.

The old development rules, on par with Austin’s Save Our Springs water quality ordinance, were best seen in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s partnership with the LCRA.

The restrictions essentially forced developers in the watershed to limit their projects in exchange for a water supply. The limits were a key selling point when the LCRA sought support for new water lines in the watershed.

Harry Savio, executive vice president of the Homebuilders Association of Greater Austin, said the region is better off following a single set of regulations established and enforced by the state.

“LCRA is in the water supply business. They’re not in the land-use business,” Savio said. And because there are few water options besides wells for Hill Country developers outside of Austin, he added, “In many ways, they’re becoming the only alternative source.”

But the Save Our Springs Alliance, which sued to make sure watershed developers followed the old rules before receiving LCRA water, said the change will only hasten a planned lawsuit over the state standards.

“Development will be done differently,” SOS lawyer John Fritschie said. Cullick noted that landowners, activists and government officials across the region have worked on a growth plan for the watershed that may offer more protections for water quality and the salamander.

And Slusher said LCRA’s decision makes it more important that smaller governments take action to limit the effects of development on water quality.

“By bringing the water, LCRA is potentially catalyzing much more growth over the aquifer,” Slusher said. “I think they have a responsibility to protect water quality as they spark more growth in any area.”

It’s unclear what will happen if developers who have already agreed to the development limits decide they want to change or scuttle their contracts and build projects under the new guidelines.

Cullick said the agency’s board would have to decide how it would handle such an issue.

“I think there’s always a difference between people who are in an area early and people who are in an area later. It’s rare that the same set of rules apply to all development,” Cullick said. “Usually, it goes against the people who wait. This time, they may think it doesn’t.”

sscheibal@statesman.com; 445-3819

State hearing to discuss Edwards Aquifer

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will hold a hearing today to receive comments on how the agency should protect the Edwards Aquifer from pollution. The hearing will be at 9:30 a.m. at the agency’s office complex on Interstate 35 in North Austin: 12100 Park 35 Circle, Building E, Room 201 S.

Optional measures to protect Barton Springs

By voluntarily following a new set of standards, which will be administered by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, developers can avoid potentially difficult reviews by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of their projects’ effects on the Barton Springs salamander and other endangered species, as well as tap into Lower Colorado River Authority water lines that run through the Barton Springs watershed. The new rules:

-Impose no limits on pavement, buildings and other forms of impervious cover.

*-Protect caves, creeks and other features with buffers.

-Require gates over caves and similar features.

*-Call for devices that trap sediment and pollution.

-Require maintenance records to be submitted every three years.

** Change from previous Fish and Wildlife Service rules.