The Austin Chronicle

Top 10 Environmental Stories

By Michael King, January 2, 2015, News

1) SUNNIER DAYS This was the Year of the Sun, with solar contract prices dropping to record lows and advocates and City Council pressing Austin Energy forward on a more aggressive strategy for renewables and zero-emissions strategies. The matter is hardly settled – and the new Council will have its own input – but real progress is undeniable.

2) CLIMATE TARGET In April, Council revised its Climate Protection Plan to make it "the most aggressive city plan" to date, with various targets for city emission reductions as well as public goals, with the ultimate target of "carbon neutrality" by 2050, and to build in "climate resiliency."

3) FLOOD CONTROL The consequences of intense growth as well as climate inaction came home in 2013 in the Halloween flood, leaving many homeowners devastated and city officials embarrassed at inadequate response. The city issued an "After Action Report" to address its shortfalls, with 171 items to be addressed, most urgently a homeowner buyout and a better early-warning system for floodplain residents.

4) ENDLESS HIGHWAY The long-planned and long-controversial State Highway 45 Southwest was back on the agenda, with political changes at Commissioners Court reactivating the project, and Council and environmental advocates looking for new ways to delay or prevent it. Environmental reviews still hang in the balance, but the momentum favors the bulldozers.

5) WATER PLANTED With a bit of fanfare, the city officially opened the still-contentious Water Treatment Plant No. 4 in December, noting its improvement of north and northwest water supplies and energy-efficient design and location. But it was also the focus of 10-1 campaign backlash as unnecessary, and its debt load has added to rising water costs despite increasing conservation.

6) WATER RISING Both city-owned utilities are caught in the conservation-pricing dilemma, and a city task force tried to design solutions for Austin Water – to moderate price increases while selling less water. Council's FY 2015 budget trimmed the increases, but a long-term solution remains elusive.

7) WAITING FOR RAIN The overarching environmental story of the last several years has been the statewide drought, either the very worst or second-worst in Texas history, and increasingly appearing to be the new normal. Coupled with Central Texas growth, the drought has preoccupied state and local officials, searching for conservation, water resources, and adaptations.

8) SEALANTS SEALED There's been some good 2014 enviro news as well: Austin's initial ban on coal-tar asphalt sealants has proved beneficial to local lakes and waterways, and has begun a trend nationally to move away from the toxic products. The sealants proved to be the source of sediment pollution in Barton Springs Pool, and Council's 2005 ban has resulted in mitigation.

9) GREEN STUDENTS A 2014 highlight was the expansion of Green Is the New Black, a Huston-Tillotson student group working on basic education, sustainability, and environmental initiatives in the context of low-income communities and minority outreach. Inspired by environmental science professor Jeff Wilson's Dumpster Project, the students are making their own initiatives and building a culture of sustainability.

10) EXPLOSIVE POLITICS Close to home, we can't forget Governor-elect Greg Abbott's campaign advice to Texans who are concerned that there might be toxic or explosive chemicals stored nearby – as the residents of West learned disastrously in the 2013 fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 people and injured many more. Rather than regulate plants or inform citizens, Abbott suggested folks just "drive around" and ask at likely facilities – and hope for the best.

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