The Road to Ruin

US290: We Built It, and Dammit, They're Coming

by Nelson England

Some Austinites can- not view the towering freeway ramps under construction at the intersection of Ben White and South Lamar without an impending sense of doom. This soon-to-be completed US290/Loop 360 freeway interchange straddles a hill overlooking Barton Creek just three miles upstream from Barton Springs. Within a few years, US290 will cut a 12-lane corridor through the heart of the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone to Oak Hill, and possibly beyond. For the past year, debate has been building between environmentalists and developers on the impact that this highway will have on the aquifer and Barton Springs. The first half of 1996 is likely to see the debate intensify and take center stage under the limelight of a new public forum, the US290/Loop 1 Task Force, which met for the second time on January 5.

The Austin Transportation Study (ATS) created the task force after environmentalists protested continued funding of the US290 freeway and demanded a new federal Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) last August. In spite of the protests, the ATS approved funding in September to keep the project on the fast track, but State Representative Sherri Greenberg attached an amendment requiring creation of the task force. The 17-member task force is composed of five ATS members (including State Representatives Greenberg and Susan Combs as co-chairs), three environmentalists, four Oak Hill representatives, and five other business, civic, and government leaders. The group has two charges: to evaluate the Texas Department of Transportation's (TxDOT) water quality controls on South MoPac and US290, and to determine whether the full 12-lane freeway corridor is necessary for the planned final segment of US290 that will run from Williamson Creek through Oak Hill to RM 1826.

Opposition to the 290 project is growing among some Oak Hill residents who have realized that, as it's proposed, the highway would literally split their community in half. There appears to be a real possibility that the task force will decide to recommend downsizing the Oak Hill segment of the freeway. TxDOT officials are busy accumulating population and traffic projections to justify the full expansion, but the four Oak Hill representatives on the task force could prove pivotal on the issue. One of them, Gary Basham, is a landscape architect who has drawn up a plan for downsizing to six lanes. Another, restaurant owner Rocky Hernandez, noted at the January 5 meeting that the right-of-way condemnation on the US290 segment between Loop 360 and US290 displaced 47% of the area's small businesses. "Now you're talking about annihilating 50% of the ones that remain," said Hernandez.

The task force has commissioned a table-sized wooden model of the TxDOT plan so that Oak Hill residents will have a better concept of what a 12-lane corridor will look like as it cuts through their community. In order to ensure Oak Hill residents a fair hearing, the ATS has voted a moratorium on further TxDOT right-of-way acquisition on the freeway until the task force delivers its recommendations in August.

The fiercest opposition to the US290 project comes from environmentalists who are concerned about highway runoff into the area's creeks, as well as impending growth in the ecologically sensitive Edwards Aquifer recharge zone southwest of Austin. Environmental opposition gained momentum after heavy rains in October of 1994 caused muddy flood water in Barton Creek to flow over the dam that normally diverts creek water around Barton Springs Pool. Large quantities of silt remained in the pool after the flood, and by last January, city biologists could find only one Barton Springs Salamander during their monthly count of the potentially endangered species. Fearing that the silt was destroying the salamanders' food supply and habitat, and interfering with its respiration and reproduction, the city ordered a captive breeding program to try to ensure its survival.

Meanwhile, plumes of silt continued to emerge from the springs 8-12 hours after rainfalls over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone. The pool was closed a total of 19 days during 1995 because silt reduced visibility to less than four and a half feet. Swimmers complained that the water appeared cloudy even early in the morning before waders began to stir up the three to eight inches of sediment on the pool bottom.

Aquifer watchdog videographer Tim Jones taped several episodes of muddy water spilling over and around TxDOT silt detention devices from US290 construction sites into Barton Creek and one of its tributaries, Gaines Creek. The videos appeared on Jones' cable access TV program, Ground Truth, further rousing the passions of environmentalists. And in January of 1995, the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District revealed that several wells drilled into the Edwards Aquifer were filling up with silt, both upstream and downstream of the US290 construction. Finally, State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, who chairs the ATS, asked TxDOT to hold a public forum on May 23 to respond to environmentalist concerns.

At the forum, Patrick Hartigan of the city's Environmental and Conservation Services Department (ECSD) told highway department officials, "We are seeing pretty high sediments being discharged in the creek that we don't think should be there," and added that anything that drains from the US290 project has a high likelihood of ending up in Barton Springs. He criticized TxDOT's over-reliance on the use of temporary ponds to trap sediment from US290 construction. Hartigan also said that the highway department should better sequence projects so as to expose less slope to erosion at one time, and he noted a lack of maintenance and repair of damaged silt detention devices. (See sidebar for a description of these and other water quality devices.) But TxDOT officials responded that no one had proven that the cloudy water coming out in Barton Springs originated exclusively from roadway construction. They said that 70% of the drainage into US290 detention ponds comes from private construction, and they maintained that silt and clay particles are always washed into aquifer recharge features by natural erosion, whether there is construction in the area or not. Furthermore, they said that their sediment controls had been approved and inspected by the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission (TNRCC).

David Fusilier was the TNRCC liaison in charge of weekly inspections of TxDOT's silt controls on US290 until last September. He says that he was aware of the controversy over the siltation of Barton Springs, and he knew that silt was getting into at least one Barton Creek tributary from a US290 detention pond. However, he says that he did not cite the highway department for violations because, "the way our rules currently read, there are no water quality standards per se set up to judge water coming off of the site." As long as the highway department has the silt control structures in place as required by a plan drawn up specifically for the site, says Fusilier, the TNRCC must judge it in compliance with state standards regardless of how much silt might be getting past the controls.

Environmentalists say that this lack of performance standards is only one of many loopholes in the "Edwards Rules," a set of environmental regulations set up in 1990 by the TNRCC to protect the Edwards Aquifer. "The Edwards Rules appear to be mainly rigorous requirements for paperwork," scoffs Steve Beers, Conservation Chair of Austin's Sierra Club. Not only are there no standards set up to guarantee a minimum level of silt runoff during construction, but once construction is complete, no chemical standards require measurement of oil, grease, nutrients, and metals from highway runoff.

Another major problem is that the Edwards Rules require no retrofitting of water quality protection devices over roads built before the rules were created. Both the Loop 360 and the MoPac bridges over Barton Creek, just a few miles upstream of Barton Springs, were built before the Edwards Rules went into effect in 1990. These bridges lack even hazardous material traps, much less water detention ponds. A 1994 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report notes that a chemical spill over these bridges could quickly enter the aquifer and the springs, wiping out the Barton Springs Salamander in one fell swoop. According to TxDOT spokesman Robert Stuard, the highway department has no plans to build retrofit ponds for the bridges.

Nor do the Edwards Rules apply to construction over the aquifer's contributing zone, a large area where streams can pick up pollutants and then carry them downstream where they will enter the aquifer in the recharge zone.

In spite of these weaknesses in water quality regulation, last May, TNRCC officials touted the Edwards Rules as the most stringent in the state to justify calling for a delay in the listing of the Barton Springs Salamander as an endangered species. A month later, the Federal Highway Administration recertified the Environmental Impact Statement on US290 after TxDOT's Department of Environmental Affairs assured the feds that "state of the art" water controls were being used on the project.

These confident-sounding official assurances that modern technology has water protection well under control contrast sharply with the results of a four-year study released in December by the Center for Research in Water Resources (CRWR) at the University of Texas. (TxDOT commissioned the $1.4 million study in 1990 as part of the settlement of a lawsuit in which environmental groups accused the highway department of shuffling funds to avoid Environmental Impact Statements on two other aquifer highways: South MoPac and the Outer Loop.) The study found that TxDOT's water quality ponds on South MoPac and the Outer Loop use vertical filters that clog easily with dirt, preventing pond drainage, blocking hazardous material traps, and bypassing subsequent highway runoff directly to creeks. Michael Barrett, project manager of the study, says that TxDOT has since modified the ponds so that now they can drain, but he believes that they provide little of the filtration of runoff contaminants of the more commonly used horizontal filters that the city has employed for 10 years.

Why did TxDOT use this unproven filtration design over the aquifer recharge zone? At the May 23 forum, Stuard told the audience that in 1990, the highway department had already completed land acquisition for MoPac and the Outer Loop, and fit the vertical filter water quality ponds into the plan to avoid delays to purchase more right-of-way for proven methods.

While the vertical filter episode does little to inspire confidence in TxDOT's "state of the art" technology for water quality control, the highway department says that things will work better on US290, where it has already constructed four ponds using horizontal filters. However, a review of the literature of stormwater controls prepared by the CRWR reveals that all existing methods have major flaws, and the state of the art is, in fact, not very far advanced. In fact, when defending the highway department's past performance, TxDOT officials often cite the constantly evolving design process in the young science of runoff controls. However, as Tim Jones notes, "It's a shame that the highway department is conducting unproven water quality control experiments next to a national treasure like Barton Springs."

One of the more ominous findings of the CRWR study was that sediment controls are unable to keep significant quantities of silt out of creeks during highway construction. In spite of what Barrett describes as exceptional efforts by the highway department to trap eroding soil from one construction site on the Outer Loop, the researchers found five times the amount of silt in creek water downstream from the site as they found upstream.

The TNRCC is currently considering public requests to tighten up the Edwards Rules, and will make recommendations to its three-member governing commission in June. The US290/Loop 1 Task Force plans to make its own recommendations to the TNRCC, and will present a list of these for ATS approval in February. Meanwhile, some environmentalists say that TxDOT has recently improved its measures to keep silt out of Barton Creek, in spite of the agency's denials at the May 23 forum that it is responsible for the pollution. City biologist Robert Hansen notes that Barton Springs siltations after autumn rains cleared much faster than before, and monthly salamander counts are back up in the 20s.

Many environmentalists fear, however, that last year's siltation of the springs is only a foretaste of worse things to come. They say that major damage to the aquifer ecosystem is inevitable even if more effective water protection methods could be devised, because the US290 freeway will open up a vast area of the aquifer recharge and contributing zones for freeway-fueled development of impervious cover over the aquifer's recharge and contributing zones. "The bigger issue is not runoff from highway construction; it's runoff from all the secondary development that will occur as a result of US290," says Steve Beers.

That opinion is backed by a September report from the Aquatic Biological Advisory Team (ABAT), a group of five scientists commissioned by the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife to study the threat of pollution to the Barton Springs Salamander. They found that the key to preserving the aquifer/springs ecosystem is to ensure that development doesn't make drastic changes in the way rainwater runs off. But impervious cover, by definition, does bring drastic change. (See impervious cover sidebar.) ABAT recommended that Austin "restrict development in critical areas in the watershed until data clearly show that continued development will have no further negative effect on water quality." At the US290/Loop 1 Task Force's initial meeting in December, Tim Jones raised the crucial question of whether the group will consider the secondary impacts on the aquifer resulting from freeway-fueled development. Representative Greenberg said that under the task force's charge, only direct runoff from US290 and MoPac are to be considered. Which leads us back to the controversy over the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project.

Federal law requires that secondary and cumulative impacts be considered in an EIS for a highway, but the EIS for US290 ignores the issue, maintaining that the same amount of development will occur in the area with or without the freeway. On the other hand, when justifying the need for the freeway, the EIS maintains that not building it would "hinder planned and potential economic activity" in the area by impairing mobility. According to some legal experts, an EIS cannot say that a project is going to stimulate the economy, while ignoring the cumulative environmental impacts of development.

Nor did the EIS consider providing better transit as an alternative to building the freeway, even though the essential purpose of an EIS is to identify the best alternative that meets mobility objectives while minimizing negative effects on the environment. Capital Metro chief Michael Bolton told the task force at its January 5 meeting that several options exist to meet projected travel demands while downsizing the freeway, including new "smart highway" technology to improve traffic flow, bus-only guideways, and commuter rail.

Transportation officials often argue that they are obliged to provide roads to meet the mobility demands of suburban growth, based on future traffic projections. However, Australian researchers Peter Newman and Jeffrey Kenworthy note that traffic demand models used by traffic engineers produce a feedback effect on land use, encouraging and promoting spread-out development and generating traffic that quickly expands to fill all road space. "Once locked into a primarily road-based system, a momentum develops which is very hard to stop," write the authors. "The obvious response to the failure of freeways to cope with traffic congestion is to suggest that still further roads are urgently needed. The new roads are then justified again on technical grounds in terms of time, fuel, and other perceived savings to the community from eliminating the congestion. This sets in motion a vicious circle of self-fulfilling prophecy of congestion, road building, sprawl, congestion, and more road building."

Perhaps the basic question in the US290 case is: Which has higher priority, the right of suburbanites to commute over freeways, or the rights of citizens who have to endure the displacements, the polluted air and water, and the traffic and noise that result from freeway construction? By providing adequate transit rather than building massive freeway systems, it may be possible for transportation officials to fulfill commitments to suburban mobility without violating the quality of life of other city dwellers. n

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