LCRA Gets Its Pipe On

A near-unanimous vote to bring surface water to Hamilton Pool Road

LCRA General Manager Joe Beal (l) speaks at 
Tuesday night's board meeting.
LCRA General Manager Joe Beal (l) speaks at Tuesday night's board meeting. (Photo By John Anderson)

Surprise, surprise. The Lower Colorado River Authority board of directors on Tuesday gave General Manager Joe Beal the green light to build a water pipeline to service new suburban developments poised to crop up along Hamilton Pool Road in the endangered Hill Country west of Austin.

The 13-0 vote (with two of the board members absent) followed more than three hours of staff presentations and public testimony from both sides of the growth issue. In the end, the board came down on the side of the people sporting the blue "Surface Water Now" buttons on their lapels. The pro-pipeline people have for months kept their message short and sweet, which is something along the line of "Growth happens. Deal with it." Of course, it's not that simple, and several board members pointed out that they agonized long and hard over the pipeline question, with one director likening this sort of decision to having to "shoot your own dog."

Still, the question asked but never answered is why LCRA is so hell-bent on plunging into environmentally sensitive territory to the west, despite a fairly long-standing citizen consensus that growth should head east, along the path blazed by an ambitious network of new subdivisions and toll roads planned for the region. In giving Beal the go-ahead to negotiate water contracts with developers in the Hamilton Pool Road area, board members also expressed an interest in strengthening and extending the utility's nonpoint source pollution ordinance, which currently does not apply to environmentally sensitive areas outside of the LCRA's official upper Highland Lakes reach.

Pipeline opponents had hoped that the board would allow three ongoing regional planning projects to run their course before deciding the pipeline issue. The utility has contributed more than $200,000 toward these planning efforts, but pipeline opponents wonder if the funding is mere lip service when weighed against the prospect of making a killing off of high-end developments. Terry Tull, executive director of the largest of the three – the Regional Water Quality Planning Project – told the board that he expects to have a final document completed by February. Though Tull did not take a public position on the pipeline, his presentation seemed to serve as code for what others have been telling the LCRA all along – slow down. That sentiment was echoed in the form of letters and e-mails from state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, Austin City Council Member Daryl Slusher, and several large landholders in the area, including the Ayers family, which is known for its commitment to conservation efforts. As noted time and again, the board was under no obligation to rush into a decision on the pipeline. Except, of course, in response to pressure from pipeline proponents.

Landowner Rebecca Hudson, whose Rocky Creek Ranch development has also received preliminary approval from Travis Co. commissioners, will be the first of a handful of landowners to benefit from the LCRA water pipeline. But not if her fence-line neighbor, Gene Lowenthal, is successful in sticking a fork in her plan. Lowenthal told the LCRA board that he and other neighboring landowners would contest Hudson's proposed wastewater treatment system, which would pretty much guarantee a delay until the fall of 2005. Hudson's proposed system would effectively spray effluent on an undeveloped – or conservation – portion of the 468-acre tract. "A treated sewage area," said Lowenthal, "is not a conservation area. It's a pollution area."

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