Edited By Michael King, Fri., July 27, 2001
F&W to EPA: Save Springs!
The Barton Springs Watershed and the federally protected salamander are in jeopardy under the lax regulatory authority of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That's according to another federal agency, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which, in a report released this week, faults the EPA's permitting process for developments over the Edwards Aquifer. "The system is not working," David Frederick, Fish & Wildlife regional administrator, told the Chronicle. "It's been a wreck for about three years." The EPA has until Aug. 21 to respond to the findings of the Fish & Wildlife report, which stemmed from a lawsuit settlement in April between the Save Our Springs Alliance, Fish & Wildlife, and the EPA. SOS had sued the two agencies, claiming that neither were adequately protecting the Springs.
The report "should be a wake-up call to developers, the city and the EPA," said SOS executive director Bill Bunch in a statement. "The research clearly shows that not just the salamander but the springs are on the brink of extinction." The report cites scientific findings of increased levels of mercury, cadmium, and arsenic in Barton Springs Pool, and high levels of oil and grease further upstream. "The trend data shows a very remarkable decline in water quality," Frederick noted. He said his agency reviewed 50 ongoing developments over the aquifer and found that 24 of them were without the required EPA construction permits, which are required for developments of more than five acres. Frederick declined to name any of the projects.
A tightened EPA permitting process could contradict a state law allowing the construction of hundreds of "grandfathered" developments permitted under less stringent environmental regulations. -- Amy Smith
Out of Ordure
It seems the plan to put portable toilets on the corner of Sixth and Trinity Streets ("Pissed On and Pissed Off," July 20) has been flushed, at least temporarily, by the city's Historic Landmark Commission. Barbara Stocklin of the city's Historic Preservation Office said that while the commission supports APD's commitment to solving the historic entertainment district's alley urination problem and desire to provide public restrooms, they do not support the portable toilet plan.
"They felt that the Porta-Potties going in as proposed would become a permanent solution and not a temporary one, so they voted against putting them there," she said. "They are asking the city and police department to focus on finding permanent restroom solutions that would have less impact on the street." Several interim solutions were discussed, included putting better lighting in the alleys to the south and north of Sixth, and creating some sort of alley-cleaning program that would help reduce the alleys' smells.
Residents of the loft apartment at Sixth and Trinity -- not 15 feet from where the proposed corral would've been installed -- were thrilled with the decision. "We feel real positive," said Khy Chapman, one of six residents there. "We went out and celebrated with a few drinks." Since the ultimate decision on the commission's recommendations is in the hands of the City Council, Chapman said the roomies are in the process of setting up meetings with council members so they can express their support for the commissioners' vote. "We feel like [Will] Wynn's in our corner, but we don't know where the rest of the council stands." Wynn told the Chronicle last week that he would not support a corral on the corner in question.
While APD Cmdr. Harold Piatt -- who is in charge of the Sixth Street beat -- could not be reached for comment, he said last week that he felt strongly that the portable toilet solution was integral to controlling the street's public urination problem. While Chapman agrees that there is a pee problem on Sixth, he believes there's a better solution to be had than the one that was offered. "No offense to Piatt," he said. "But this whole thing just smelled funny." -- Jordan Smith
Fewer Nerds, More Deputies?
It seems an overall shortage of employees is taking its toll on the Travis County Sheriff's Office, where currently there are at least 60 vacancies. TCSO spokesman Roger Wade said the reason for the shortage is twofold. First, at the beginning of the year the County Commissioner's Court authorized 100 new positions within the department, and second, the tech boom of the past two years made it more difficult to recruit new employees.
Wade said the department is optimistic about filling the openings -- now that the boom has gone bust. "Now people are going back to government work. Remember, the government doesn't do layoffs," he said. "We are working feverishly to try and hire." Wade also said that the department is asking the commissioner's court for at least $8 million in next year's budget for departmental pay raises. With the new Austin Police Dept. contract, which guarantees officers a 22% pay raise over the next four years, Wade said the Sheriff's Office is losing candidates to APD, where the starting pay is also higher. "That'll hurt us a little too," he said.
In the meantime, the July issue of The Baton -- the newsletter of the Travis Co. Sheriff's Officers Association -- is reporting that staffing levels are so low that officers are being denied vacation time. "One officer requested time off for his honeymoon one year prior to his wedding this summer," reported The Baton. "Just prior to the scheduled event, supervisors denied his request claiming no relief was available. The officer resigned."
Sheriff Margo Frasier told the newsletter that the officer should have appealed the decision, because "no one should have to quit their job because they can't have time off." TCSOA President James Gonzales couldn't be reached for comment, but did express skepticism about Frasier's claims in the newsletter. "It's disheartening to know that this officer was so frustrated that he didn't believe he had a chain of command who would listen to him," he said. "During a time when every division has dozens of vacancies and every shift is shorthanded, it would seem prudent to keep happy the employees we do have." -- Jordan Smith
Time was when Barton Springs Pool visitors could spend a few minutes learning about the pool's unique history and ecology from reading one of two wooden educational kiosks that stood near the pool entrance. But these signs have been missing in action for several months, replaced by cheery banners posted in the parking lot -- except you have to go looking for the banners to notice them.
In response, SOS director Bill Bunch says the city is not fulfilling a federal requirement to provide the public with educational information on the Springs, violating one of the specifications laid out in the city's Section 10(a) permit under the Endangered Species Act. The pool is home to the endangered Barton Springs Salamander, which secured a place on the growing list of endangered species in 1998. The city claims that the banners, which went up last October, "are just the beginning of a new public education campaign," according to a letter to Bunch from Mike Heitz, director of the Watershed Protection and Development Review Dept. Bunch counters that "there's not a fraction of the information on the banners that you could find on the kiosks."
This lack of information, Bunch wrote in a June 29 letter to the mayor and council members, "results in hundreds -- even thousands -- of lost opportunities every day to educate and endear pool visitors with knowledge and appreciation of the Springs." SOS, meanwhile, has taken matters into its own hands. Every weekend since mid-June, SOS volunteers can be found providing their own educational material on the Springs. In doing so, volunteers says they have enlisted "hundreds" of new members or supporters willing to donate a few bucks to the cause. -- Amy Smith