Water Pipe

Water Line = Growth?

Current evidence of this, Bunch says, is LCRA's plan to build a 14-mile water line to Dripping Springs from an LCRA water station near the Village of Bee Cave. That infrastructure, Bunch insists, will spur undesirable growth in these environmentally crucial areas. Bunch is angry that the city would choose to line Rose's pockets, "Especially since Mark Rose's game plan is to pave the whole Hill Country ... There's no way it's not going to fund LCRA's expansionist dreams."

(For his part, Rose is no more polite about the motives of Bunch and SOS, charging in a recent letter to the Alliance that, "For years now, I have tolerated the distortion of my public service record and the trashing of the institutions I have served ... it is usually a PR gimmick to accomplish the attacker's goal of either rallying the troops or raising money ... a strategy that, in the long run, will do far more harm to the SOS than to the LCRA.")

But the city has to deal with LCRA, says Assistant City Manager Toby Futrell. "They're the ones that have the water," she said, and the city needs water. (Bunch says the city could look to private farmers and ranchers for water rights, such as the rice farmers from whom LCRA bought the Garwood rights.) Besides, Futrell said, the LCRA is required by law to separate their accounts, so that money from the raw water sale to Austin, for example, could not be used to subsidize the extension of wastewater service to Dripping Springs (the official LCRA account of what the money will be used for includes upgrading the Highland Lakes dams and purchasing the Garwood Irrigation Co., "including 133,000 acre-feet of the most senior water rights on the river").

So why did the deal go down like it did? Bunch surmises that longtime Water and Wastewater director Randy Goss has long believed in "extending central water and sewer to everyone you possibly can; extend your kingdom as far as you can -- he's still doing that." And Rose was under pressure to find money to pay for the Garwood water rights, so the timing was convenient. "Their interests aligned," said Bunch.

Goss could not be reached for comment, but Futrell forcefully disputed Bunch's claims that the Water and Wastewater Department is interested in facilitating the paving of the Hill Country. She reeled off a list of the department's actions, including a 10-year-old conservation program, and the strong water/wastewater infrastructure incentives that helped bring Dell, Motorola, and CSC into the Desired Development Zone -- and off of the aquifer. She also said the department was crucial in achieving the sale of the $65 million bonds for last May's Prop. 2 election.

While the city may buy its water from LCRA, Futrell says that doesn't mean the city is 100% behind whatever Rose and the gang have planned. "We are concerned about the southwest pipeline," she said, referring to the Dripping Springs water line. "That's not our proposal."

Pipeline opponents have at least some allies in the southwest. Though many Dripping Springs residents eagerly await LCRA service, some have expressed concerns that the added infrastructure will be prohibitively expensive for them to hook into, and will inevitably contribute to the spread of growth that they moved to the hinterlands to escape.

At a meeting this week in Austin, LCRA officials pledged to work with the city of Austin and affected residents to develop a water plan addressing the growth that will inevitably occur in the Dripping Springs area. That plan will be one of two conditions the agency must meet to satisfy the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency's concerns that the pipeline will not disturb the endangered warbler habitat through which it would pass, and that there is a plan to address growth.

SOS counsel Grant Godfrey said he was cautiously encouraged by the discussion: "The meeting was fairly good from a process standpoint. LCRA was a little more open and forthright about their intentions ... the costs, and that there will be an effect on the aquifer and on water quality," he noted. But he added that "at this point, the plan is an exercise in futility, because the legal structures don't appear to be in place to give the plan any meaning."

The LCRA and Rose have long differed with members of Austin's environmental community on attitudes toward growth. For instance, from his time on the Austin City Council, Rose is remembered, and still widely hated, for making the motion to approve the Circle C MUD. Yet that was a good environmental decision, he still maintains, as it allowed the city to have some role in and control over the kind of infrastructure that went in there. As he told the Chronicle in 1997, "As long as Austin continues to determine growth policies by withholding service, they'll simply be a side participant in these discussions [over growth]. You can't say I won't provide you services and then say this is how you're going to grow. That's the dilemma Austin faces. And Austin better wake up, or it's going to end up with a ring of cities around it and it won't be the LCRA that did it, it will be the city of Austin."

Privately, city officials have criticized the SOS Alliance, on both the current water deal issue and issues past, for being uncompromising -- for pretending that by refusing to accommodate growth, it can be prevented. But SOS remains vigilant -- like the terms Smart Growth and mitigation, the "growth-is-happening-so-we'd-better-manage-it" argument can be easily co-opted by people who really mean, "Let's do what we can to encourage growth, no matter what it costs."

It's safe to say that SOS and the LCRA will not likely announce a meeting of the minds any time soon. So it's up to the city, the LCRA's likely partner for the next 50 years, to do the accommodating, and the managing of that inevitable growth we keep hearing so much about.

This Week in Council:No meeting again this week, but the countdown begins to the July 1 meeting, which, after all this time off and the July 8 meeting canceled, will have a huge workload.

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