Septic Overload?

LCRA Waits in Wings While City Ponders Sewer Service

illustration by Doug Potter

Austin city council- members are looking for a way to provide sewer service to the city of West Lake Hills that would ensure water quality protection without spurring commercial development in the area. In discussions with city staff, councilmembers Beverly Griffith and Bill Spelman are promoting their belief that the best way to accomplish the goal is to limit the capacity of the infrastructure Austin provides, so that future councils will not be vulnerable to pleas for more sewer capacity to complement increased density of development or size of the service area.

At last week's work session, the council approved the extension of sewage service to the city of Rollingwood, but held off on making a similar deal with neighbor West Lake. Rollingwood officials were successful in convincing the council that their community was largely "built out," and that extension of city sewer service would not increase development in the area. The West Lake sewer capacity would be 900 gallons a minute, three times that approved for Rollingwood.

Councilmembers and local environmentalists worry that extending sewer service to the area will encourage development on vulnerable watershed lands, making the city an accomplice in the inevitable march of sprawl beyond Loop 360 and points further west. The problem is, if Austin doesn't provide sewer service for West Lake, somebody else just might: The Lower Colorado River Authority, a relatively new player in the wastewater service game, has discussed providing West Lake with the sewer service it has been seeking from the city of Austin. And with LCRA in charge, Austin would have no chance to exert a moderating influence over development in the area. LCRA spokesman Robert Cullick confirms that the LCRA doesn't share the city's Smart-Growth mission: "We're not in the land use control business. We're in the service business. We're statutorily required to provide service where it's requested and feasible. It would be up to the sovereign city of West Lake to manage growth the way it wants to." Described on one State of Texas Web site as a "pseudo state agency," the LCRA was created by the legislature in 1934 and receives its general mission from the Capitol, but receives no state money. All its revenue comes from providing electric and water utility service to customers. They've only gotten into wastewater service in the last few years, Cullick said, at the request of customers who had fallen outside other systems. The agency's mission is to meet requests from these customers, not to facilitate the paving of the Hill Country. "We don't have a corporate strategy for doing this," says Cullick.

Save Our Springs Executive Director Brigid Shea disagrees, pointing out that the agency's livelihood is dependent on attracting new customers to its growing portfolio of utility services, regardless of the environmental consequences: "LCRA's foray in providing water to the Hill Country is fostering inappropriate development." Even if the agency did have Napoleonic designs on the sewers of present and future Westsiders, however, it doesn't necessarily need West Lake in order to get a toehold. LCRA already has several water treatment plants in Central Texas, including one near Fredericksburg. "We've been working with West Lake Hills and Rollingwood for a good long time - about 18 months, looking at various proposals, and we think the best engineering and environmental option is that the service go to the city of Austin," says Cullick. And though they've talked to West Lake since last week's council meeting, LCRA wants to get some "clarity in the relationship Austin wants" with West Lake before proceeding with any serious negotiations.

They may have to wait a while longer. The resolution passed by the council was rather vague, calling for the two cities to pursue "a relationship" (though presumably not an inappropriate one) that could allow sewer service negotiations to continue. To this point, movement toward such a relationship has been slow. Craig Bell of the City Water Wastewater Department said the city has had "initial discussions" with West Lake officials since the council meeting, and the two cities are "exchanging some ideas" about how to address the council's concerns, but "not much has really happened." They'd better get busy, said Cullick, if they want to prevent further water quality damage from the aging septic systems West Lake residents are currently using. "You've got septic tanks over the aquifer - in any other situation, that would be an emergency," he said.

But Shea believes the perceived choice between a centralized sewage system or inadequate, unmonitored individual septic tanks is a false one, which completely ignores viable middle-ground options. Shea cited a 1991 Texas Water Development Board report, which described the success of non-centralized septic systems that are specifically designed for hilly, rocky terrain. "People are either ignoring it, or they've got amnesia," she said. And the city shouldn't rush to serve West Lake before the LCRA does, Shea said, as she doubts LCRA's ability to get a sewage deal done at all. When the city agreed to enter into the talks with its neighbors, a big selling point was the proposed sewage reclamation plant west of Zilker Park, in Rollingwood, that could treat sewage for use in watering Zilker and the Lions Municipal Golf Course across Town Lake. Without the treatment plant to prepare water for use at Zilker, they'd have to drain it, probably into Town Lake. "What would they do with the treated sewage? They'd need a discharge permit, and they'd have a hard time making the case" for that, says Shea.

Back to Bonds

Everybody breathe. The Austin City Council has finally agreed upon plans to present voters with the city's latest slate of options for public projects to be financed through the sale of bonds, formerly known as the September bond election. On November 3, below the statewide ballot headed by gubernatorial candidates Garry Mauro and George W. Bush, will appear the bond package approved by the City Council last week.

Ailing Councilmember Gus Garcia, recently hospitalized for heart arrhythmia, came out of his convalescence to join the Kirk Watson/Daryl Slusher/Bill Spelman team, plus a reluctant Jackie Goodman, in voting for the November date. Councilmembers Willie Lewis and Beverly Griffith voted against moving the election from September. Despite the protests of councilmembers Goodman and Griffith that combining elections would give the bonds short shrift and preclude adequate voter education, the arguments for cost savings and increased voter turnout were all but irrefutable. Once the November option - with its attendant "more people, less money" mantra - was publicized, the deal was pretty much sealed. But some fear the addition of thousnds of "wildcard" general election voters could work against the half-billion dollar package which, while originally billed as "meat and potatoes," could be perceived as having a lot of gravy. (The council also added back into the package $98 million in utility revenue bonds - and repealed the financial policy that would have allowed them to be issued without a public vote - and that's what increased the revenue bond total to $332 million, and the whole bond package total to $672.3 million.)

Councilmember Goodman originally supported the September date because she felt the bond election should be decided by the core group of people who are interested in the issue, and who understand the need to finance public projects. Goodman cited the thoughtful consideration AISD gives the selection of its bond election dates, and noted that the district normally seeks a date when the bonds can be considered on their own. She voted with the November majority only to allow the passage of the item on all three readings at once, an action that requires five out of seven votes. Without Goodman's vote, the council would still have approved the move, but it would have had to meet on three separate days in order to do so.

Lewis expressed frustration that city staff had not informed the council of the November option sooner, and he said he doubts the bonds would enjoy the same success in November that they might in September. "I don't think some of the stuff will pass in November; maybe four out of the five [general obligation propositions] will fail," Lewis said. But regardless of the date, said Lewis: "It's a crapshoot no matter when you have it."

Still, special election voters are not necessarily more informed than those who only turn out for the general election, said Maxine Barkan, president of Austin League of Women Voters. "Some people vote automatically" in every election, she said, and the proliferation of election dates "creates confusion rather than knowledge." Barkan said the decision will further the League's mission of making voting accessible to the largest number of people. She said that in Travis County, 90% of the eligible voters are registered, compared to 79% statewide, but that turnout in recent years has dropped as low as 10% for some elections.

The council could ill afford to oppose a move guaranteed to increase turnout. The election date debate raises questions that rarely get discussed outside college government courses, or late at night on C-SPAN: Can the mass of voters be trusted to make good policy decisions? The ivory tower and the media can afford such speculation, but elected politicians cannot, especially when it's framed in concrete, Austin-voter terms, such as: Will the value of Eastside destination parks (or of the Mexican American Cultural Center) be lost on the suburban voter who emerges from the hinterlands to punch the Bush/Perry ticket? Time will tell.

Airport News

After two Request for Proposals by the city turned out two different recommendations on which companies to hire to run concessions at the new Bergstrom Airport, the council chose the two companies it felt had the strongest connection to local and independent merchants. Left out in the cold was Paradies Shops Inc., the company that came in first on staff ratings of each set of RFPs (and which was scrutinized earlier this year after their involvement in an Atlanta bribery scam was revealed). Only Lewis, who said the RFP process should be respected, voted against the motion to award two airport concessions each to CA One, whose subcontractors include Amy's Ice Cream, the Salt Lick, Austin City Limits, and San Antonio-based News and Gifts International.

This Week in Council: Council will consider awarding the Management Network a three-year $800,000 contract for the management and operation of the Austin Music Network. Public hearings are set for 7 and 8 pm tonight [Aug. 20] respectively, on the 1998-99 Operating and Capital Budgets (Smart Growth, Neighborhood and Housing Issues) and the continuation of the Curfew Ordinance, a 1990 law enacted to combat juvenile crime.

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Council Watch, Council, City Council, Water Quality, Sewer Service, Lcra, Westlake Hills, Bonds

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