Area environmentalists were happily surprised by a recent decision to put a water pipeline to Dripping Springs on hold, but they wonder how the move will affect the Hays County development picture as a whole.
The Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) made an announcement on Dec. 22 that it was halting the pipeline construction -- originally scheduled for January -- until an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is prepared, a process that could take 18 months or more. LCRA officials say the EIS will provide a comprehensive study of all environmental impacts from the pipeline, particularly its role in promoting new development, and its effect on the endangered Barton Springs Salamander.
"It's not like an EIS is a panacea, though," says Robin Rather, Save Our Springs Alliance (SOS) chair. She says the proof will be in the pudding on how far the study goes in examining the development picture and how that information will be used to plan for growth.
Environmentalists and concerned Hays Co. residents hailed the LRCA decision. "This is what we wanted all along," says Jim Camp, co-chair of the Hays County Water Planning Partnership (HCWPP), a group which organized to oppose the pipeline. "LCRA pretty much knew there was a lot of opposition until they put in a meaningful planning process."
The $17.5 million LCRA pipeline, running from a Hwy. 71 storage facility to Dripping Springs, would provide surface water to the city and possibly to northern and central areas of Hays County, areas that rely primarily on shallow wells susceptible to drought. However, many Hays Co. residents fear the water supply will fuel large-scale development, and environmentalists claim that LCRA is threatening water quality by accommodating development over the Edwards Aquifer and its recharge zones.
Neither retiring LCRA General Manager Mark Rose nor his incoming replacement, Joe Beal, returned phone calls to their offices. But LCRA officials have said in the past that the pipeline water supply is intended to serve existing residences and that surface water is preferable to overdrilling with wells.
Both SOS and HCWPP filed intent-to-sue notices against the LCRA over the pipeline, and both say the threat of legal action had a definite impact on the authority's decision to seek an EIS.
LCRA spokesperson Robert Cullick says the EIS is intended to provide answers to the environmental community's concerns in a formalized process. "It's kind of like, let's cut through the clutter and politics and hysteria and go for as much science and reason that's out there," he says.
Cullick says the efforts of the Save Barton Creek Association (SBCA) played a vital role in the LCRA's decision to delay construction. Shudde Fath, SBCA treasurer, drafted a four-page letter to Rose early in December requesting that the pipeline be delayed until all the "stakeholders had a meaningful process" for planning for Hays County growth and the pipeline. "I just got to mullygrubbing about it when I realized it was a standoff," she says.
Rose then met with Fath, SBCA president Jon Beall, and SBCA program manager George Cofer to try and come to an agreement on how to proceed with planning. "They didn't do exactly what we were asking, but it certainly was better than anything prior," Fath says. SBCA members then formally endorsed the EIS process and joined LCRA officials in announcing it at the press conference Dec. 22.
Key in the EIS will be the debate on which method of providing water is more beneficial to the environment: surface water or overdrilling into aquifers. Chuck Sellers, president of the Dripping Springs Water Supply Corporation, says that providing surface water will protect the environment rather than harm it. "It's our feeling that it does greater harm poking holes in the ground looking for water," he says. The corporation is contracting with LCRA to sell the pipeline water. Currently, the corporation provides about 3,000 Dripping Springs area residents with well water.
Still, Sellers welcomes the EIS. "We're fully supportive of it -- simply because, quite frankly, we're all environmentalists," he says. "We feel doing an EIS will answer a lot of questions on how the pipeline will affect Barton Springs." He adds that rapid growth will continue in Hays County regardless of where the water is sought, so it makes more sense to provide surface water.
Dripping Springs Mayor Wayne Smith also stresses that growth will come regardless of the LCRA project. "If a person has land for sale and they don't get [LCRA water], they're going to put down wells," he says. Smith also says LCRA has already conducted enough studies without the EIS.
Dede Stevenson, a vocal pipeline supporter and Dripping Springs Planning Commission member, also feels the EIS is an unnecessary delay that could be disastrous for current Hays residents whose wells go dry in time of drought. "We're looking at dragging this on and on," she says. Stevenson blames the impending lawsuits by SOS and HCWPP for the LCRA decision; she says she fully expects the groups to sue again once an EIS shows the pipeline will be beneficial. "Our environment is being sacrificed for Austin's political maneuvering."
Camp says the HCWPP will push for "independent professionals" to help conduct the study, and "not some engineering firm that has done EIS work for developers." But after talking with Joe Beal, who will take the LCRA helm as general manager on Jan. 20, he says he feels optimistic about the EIS. "I have a feeling that the process will be meaningful."
HCWPP members and others continue to wrangle with regional planning as a whole, since the pipeline is only one piece of the puzzle that will determine how the county develops. The Oversight Planning Committee, a group of area officials formed by Hays County Judge Jim Powers to plan for the pipeline and regional growth, has languished and it's unclear if the group will continue. Powers did not return phone calls asking about the status of the group, and members are still awaiting word on when and if they will meet again. Another committee formed to study the county's controversial transportation plan for upgrading and building roads also is just getting its feet wet.
Finally, environmentalists are unsure what will become of LCRA's draft agreement -- now in limbo -- with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The memorandum of understanding would allow LCRA to provide existing residents with pipeline water, but any new developments would have to meet strict requirements from Fish and Wildlife. Those requirements reportedly are similar to impervious cover restrictions mandated by Austin's SOS ordinance and were intended to protect the Barton Springs Salamander. David Frederick, supervisor for Fish and Wildlife's Austin office, says the agreement still may come to fruition, depending on the findings of the EIS.
While the EIS process lumbers along, Hays residents could face bigger changes in the near term. For example, although officials with the Newhall Land & Farming Company abandoned plans to put in thousands of homes at a site known as Rutherford Ranch in northern Hays County, the land is still ripe for development. And Gary Bradley is actively seeking city of Austin water and sewer service for his Spillar Ranch project, a 700-plus-home development near Circle C Ranch. So, regardless of what happens with the pipeline, all parties in the ensuing Hays County development struggle agree that regional planning is imperative to protect residents' quality of life.
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