Summit for the Aquifer

At the close of last week's first regional environmental summit, Kent Butler, a UT planning professor, was asked to summarize the range of thought growing out of the day's small-group discussions. Butler paused a moment. "I'm blown away by so many fantastic ideas," he said, looking genuinely impressed. But ideas are only part of the process, Butler continued. "We need to make a long-range commitment to this planning ... and start an ongoing conversation between communities."

Conversation is a relatively new concept between old sparring partners like Austin and Hays County, not to mention Austin and its own family at Travis Co. But in the cheery confines of the Palmer Events Center, politicians and bureaucrats set aside differences for a day to officially agree on one thing: We need a plan to guide development over the Edwards Aquifer.

That, of course, is hardly news. But how such a plan will be developed, implemented, and enforced is a script still waiting to be written. "I knew of course that we weren't going to write a regional plan in one day," Council Member Daryl Slusher said after the meeting. But he noted that if nothing else, the summit provided an adequate starting point. Slusher and Hays Co. Judge Jim Powers -- who has for years faced local opposition to his road-building agenda -- organized the event and invited representatives from several entities, including Dripping Springs, Buda, the Austin-San Antonio Regional Conference, the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, and the Lower Colorado River Authority (which needs a plan in place in order to expand its water pipeline activities in high-growth areas of northwest Hays Co.). SOS Alliance reps also participated, as did the Hays Co. grassroots neighborhood group, the Friendship Alliance.

Slusher stressed that a regional plan is needed to address specific concerns about more sensitive areas of the aquifer. This is in contrast to Envision Central Texas, the broader-based planning effort covering all five counties (Travis, Hays, Williamson, Bastrop, and Caldwell) in the Austin metro area.

As SOS' Colin Clark sees it, the summit was a good first step, but he'd like to see a more citizen-inclusive process in future efforts. "The Envision Central Texas workshops were encouraging in that citizens were asked to create their own vision," Clark said, "and one outcome was widespread consensus on steering development away from the Barton Springs Watershed."

Senate Bill 873, passed in 2001, gives counties more regulatory authority over subdivisions and their infrastructure, with the idea being to promote "responsible development." Hays Co. may be one of the first counties to get something on the books. "There is no question that in Hays Co. we have a real challenge," Powers said, "but I think you're going to see something happen very quickly with 873."

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