Edwards Aquifer: No Limits Yet

The Sierra Club's request for a temporary restraining order against several Central Texas municipalities, businesses, and even the U.S. Defense Department, to limit pumping out of the Edwards Aquifer, failed to win support in court this week. Citing the severe drought conditions, the possibility of a declining water level in the aquifer, and the lack of sufficient spring flow out of the aquifer that supports several endangered species, the group attempted to get the U.S. District court to force the largest users to cut their pumping by 20% above their daily winter average use. At the hearing Wednesday, July 17 in Pecos where the request was filed, District Judge Lucius Bunton did ask that the parties try to negotiate an agreement for action on water conservation, and scheduled another hearing for August 1. At that time, Bunton will review the status of the agreement, and the recommendations of the Edwards Aquifer Authority (EAA), a new body formed by the State Legislature to enact aquifer water policy and drought management plans.

The Sierra Club sued several major users on the southern end of the aquifer, the largest municipality being the City of San Antonio, which relies solely upon the aquifer for its water supply. Other defendants include San Marcos, New Braunfels, Hondo, Uvalde, Leon Valley, the Bexar Metropolitan Water District, and several industrial and agricultural irrigation pumpers. The group's cause for alarm is obvious: The drought conditions have reduced base flow into the aquifer, putting San Marcos and Comal Springs in danger. As reported in last week's "Environs," Comal -- which feeds the Guadalupe River and is home to several federally listed endangered species -- is running at one-third its normal flow rate, and is in imminent danger of running dry.

Sierra Club State Director Ken Kramer said in a statement Wednesday afternoon that "although the judge decided not to grant a temporary restraining order today, he agreed with us that reasonable and prudent steps must be taken to reduce pumping from the Edwards in order to protect the aquifer and maintain the springflows." It seems the Sierra Club will bow out of this effort now, but only, Kramer says, "as long as the Authority [EAA] is able to act quickly and effectively to achieve reductions that will protect the aquifer and the springs..." -- L.C.B.

The Truth Hurts

Freeport-McMoRan's legal problems at its gold and copper mine in Irian Jaya continue, despite claims to the contrary by the company. LEMASA, the leadership council of the region's Amungme tribe, has formally rejected Freeport's offer to allocate 1% of the company's annual revenues to a trust fund for the benefit of local tribal groups. (Freeport's 1995 annual revenue was $1.8 billion.) In a letter dated June 29, four directors of LEMASA, including Tom Beanal, who filed a $6 billion class action lawsuit against Freeport in April, write that LEMASA and the Amungme people "unconditionally and absolutely reject" Freeport's offer. "We shall never succom [sic] to the offer of bribes, intimidation or [be] dishonestly induced into accepting PT Freeport Indonesia's `Settlement Agreement'."

The LEMASA statement directly contradicts Freeport's full-page ad in the local daily on April 25, which said "Fact: An agreement has been reached with our Indonesian neighbors. On April 13, in Irian Jaya, Indonesia, Freeport finalized an agreement with local indigenous leaders to continue the enhancement of direct benefits to those tribes whose original tribal lands have been impacted by the company's operations." The reality is that another 1,000 indigenous tribe members have recently joined the class-action suit against Freeport.

Again, Freeport spokesman Bill Collier did not return phone calls seeking comment. -- R.B.

Welcome to Austin:
Say Cheese!

All systems are go, surprisingly, for public art at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport when it opens in 1998. Concepts for public art such as "big hair" and cowboy hat engravings on restroom mirrors are planned, despite the fact that Austin's Art in Public Places (AIPP) program caught hell, and was nearly abolished, during its last two attempts to endow major public art for the Convention Center and the new terminal at Robert Mueller Airport.

This time around, though, AIPP has not only encountered little controversy, but will actually get a boost in funding. The ordinance establishing the program sets aside 1% of construction costs on city public-works projects for public art, but caps spending on individual construction projects at $200,000. According to AIPP coordinator Martha Peters, members of the AIPP advisory panel "asked the city council to consider increasing that cap, which they did." This action -- sponsored by then-Councilmember Max Nofziger at his last council meeting in June -- allocated a total of $370,000 for seven installations at the airport, culled from 133 submissions.

At Bergstrom, AIPP avoided the pitfalls that scuttled the Convention Center and Mueller art projects -- all of the artists are from Austin, and none of the art is flat-out loony. (The big-hair restroom mirrors are small-time compared to the ant-farm installation concept at Mueller, and the Convention Center sculpture made of trash.) While the council now has to approve or reject each of the seven contracts over the next few weeks, the projects have been endorsed by the AIPP panel, the Austin Arts Commission, and the Airport Advisory Board, and such consensus usually carries weight with the council.

Other art work the city will fund at Bergstrom includes aviation symbols rendered in enamel and glass beads, and paintings on glass shaped like luggage. And, of course, "diverse Austin scenes." Peters notes, "Not everyone's going to like everything, but it's a fine body of work that will give the new airport a lot of visual interest." -- M.C.M.

Visions of Green

For a local community group, an empty lot off East 12th will soon be "a place for storytelling... with something to bring the young and old together. Why do the same thing again [as other parks]?" That vision, stated by Kat Allison of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, better known as ACORN, might seem a lofty goal for what up to now has served as a city dump, but the project is already more than halfway completed.

Since the Spring of 1994, ACORN, a coalition that encourages self-start community efforts, has spearheaded the effort to convert the acre lot into a park. From the 1920s to the 1970s, the City of Austin dumped incinerator ash and trash on the site. The lot was also contaminated by deteriorating barrels of DDT from an unknown origin. An overgrown haven for crime and drug deals, the site has been a hazard to the residential neighborhood. After the council denied funding for a cleanup in 1994, at ACORN'S behest, former Councilmember Brigid Shea pushed through the $200,000 necessary for the environmental overhaul which has just been completed.

ACORN brought in University of Texas'
Dr. Kent Butler to speak to children at nearby Simms, Norman, and Ortega Elementary schools about their hopes for the new park. Their number one request? Surprisingly adult: Clean, safe bathrooms. Park development costs, starting with bathrooms and benches and ending with a stage area, are estimated at $700,000. Someday ACORN hopes to see a community center at Springdale as well.

With new Councilmembers Beverly Griffith and Daryl Slusher now in support of the Springdale Park, ACORN has a council majority behind funding for its development. (Eric Mitchell and Jackie Goodman have also pledged their support.) But the plan will still need private funding, and the group is looking for donors. If left solely to city funding, the current plans won't be completed until 2010. -- K.V.

Bike/Peds in the Slow Lane

The Austin Transportation Study (ATS) approved $3.3 million in new transportation spending at its July 8 meeting, including
$1.49 million for bicycles and pedestrians,
$1.3 million for repaving sections of Martin Luther King Blvd., and $610,000 for traffic congestion reduction programs. Several citizens and ATS members, however, complained about delays in implementation of previously approved bike and pedestrian projects. State Representative and ATS member Glen Maxey questioned ATS staff's recommendation to use $95,000 of approved bicycle/pedestrian funding for traffic light synchronization. "Once again bicycle/pedestrian projects are falling to the wayside to give priority to automobiles," said Maxey. ATS head planner Mike Aulick defended the fund transfer, citing the importance of traffic light synchronization and the need to balance all transportation demands.

The question of delays in implementing non-automobile projects popped up again when ATS staff reported on the status of a group of federally funded "enhancements projects" that include improvements to seven hike-and-bike trails, construction of a pedestrian bridge on Lamar Blvd., and the proposed Saltillo Plaza in East Austin. The projects were approved in 1994, yet no work has begun on them. Roger Baker, chair of ROUTE, an alternative transportation advocacy group, said that the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) ranks 48th in the nation for speed of implementing enhancements projects. ATS planner Lee Hoy defended TxDOT, reasoning that other states are faster because they are not allowing local governments to participate in the planning. Wes Burford, representing TxDOT's Austin district, added that two enhancements projects were delayed because of planning conflicts between Capital Metro and city bureaucracy. Aulick then warned the ATS committee that the city could lose the enhancements funding if the projects do not go to contract by September, 1997.

In other action, the ATS held a public hearing on two amendments to Austin's 25-year transportation plan. One amendment would allow a change in Capital Metro's proposed light rail alignment, while the other, sponsored by TxDOT, calls for $1.5 million for preliminary engineering of a high-tech traffic management center that would include use of surveillance cameras on area freeways to quickly spot accidents. TxDOT says that more rapid clearance of wrecked cars from freeway lanes would eliminate much of Austin's traffic congestion. However, Baker called the proposal a band-aid approach that fails to deal with the inherent safety problems on I-35, and suggested that the money be spent on closing down the highway's dangerous on-ramps instead. -- N.E.

Quitter!

Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh has announced that he's quitting his long-running syndicated show that criticizes and pokes fun at political liberals. Limbaugh cited disappointment that changes in the syndication business had resulted in his show being "pushed later and later [in time slots] and in the process lost a lot of potential audience," he told the Associated Press this week. The "Ditto Heads," as his followers dubbed themselves, have remained loyal to their leader, but the time slot changes have apparently thrown off potential new audiences. In Austin, the show runs on the FCN (Fox Children's Network) independent affiliate, KVC Channel 13.

KVC Program Assistant Tisha Harris says Limbaugh's show originally held a noon and midnight local slot at Fox, but when CBS took over KEYE 42, the show was moved to KVC. "We tried to fit him in, but 11:30pm [weeknights] was the best we could do." Later time slots in the TV business usually indicate slowing ratings, until finally a show is punted off the air. That's exactly what happened here, says Harris. "[Limbaugh] has a huge radio following, but as far as his popularity on TV goes, he's produced low ratings. I'm sure he'd rather quit than suffer being cancelled." -- L.C.B.

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