New Lessons in Flood Mitigation

Austin’s award-winning Watershed Protection Department finds success in its diverse approach to managing stormwater.

New Lessons in Flood Mitigation

Heavy equipment operator lead John Edwards (right) moves a vacuum boom into place while drainage maintenance supervisor John Hayes oversees the work.

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Austin, Texas, is blessed — and sometimes cursed  — by the water that runs through it,     under it and, unfortunately, over it.

As the one-time frontier settlement has evolved into the political, musical and intellectual hub of Texas, it has relied on water carried through the city not only by the Colorado River — not to be confused with its more famous canyon-carving namesake — but also springs fed by the Edwards and Trinity aquifers that run under much of Central Texas.

Although Austin draws its drinking water from three reservoirs on its stretch of the Colorado, Austin’s drainage officials take stewardship of the underground resources very seriously. The Edwards Aquifer, one of the 10 largest aquifers in the United States, is the key source of water for millions of Texans, particularly the people of San Antonio a little more than an hour to the south. But it is also the source of natural beauty and recreation in Austin where it emerges in springs, including those in and near the city’s storied Barton Springs Pool.

Finally, it’s important to understand that Austin sits atop a massive stretch of limestone bedrock, one of several factors that make dangerous flooding a very real threat in Central Texas. Roxanne Jackson, the Field Operations Division manager and an employee of the Watershed Protection Department since 1996, says that each time floods inundate parts of the city, her department and other departments learn new lessons about mitigating the potential damages that storms can bring. 

The variety of drainage issues sets forth a daunting challenge for the award-winning Watershed Protection Department, the agency responsible for building, operating and overseeing the city’s stormwater drainage infrastructure while also overseeing the public’s compliance with city, state, and federal codes and regulations.

Ensuring compliance

Since the creation of the Watershed Protection Department in 1991, management of the city’s stormwater drainage system has focused on the mission to protect lives, property and the environment. The department manages a network of public stormwater drainage assets that includes a little more than 1,000 miles of traditional underground pipelines, nearly 1,000 miles of natural and engineered waterways, and more than 1,000 city-owned or -operated stormwater management ponds.

The department also has overseen the installation and continues the inspection (once every three years) of more than 7,000 privately owned ponds or other drainage structures operated by industries, commercial building owners, local government facilities, homeowners associations and individual property owners.

Jackson says that in order to ensure compliance with the city’s drainage and water-quality permit mandates while operating the widespread storm drain system, the department’s leaders have learned that clear communications and teamwork are essential. The result is a level of management and compliance that has earned Austin’s Watershed Protection Department national recognition over the past two years at the annual luncheon of the national Stormwater Congress held during the annual Water Environment Federation Technical Exhibition and Conference.

In 2017, Austin won the top overall award for cities larger than 100,000 people with gold ratings in both categories of the MS4 Stormwater and Green Infrastructure Awards: Innovation and Program Management. In 2016, the department earned a gold rating in Program Management.

The national awards were developed by WEF and the Environmental Protection Agency in 2015 to recognize and encourage municipal separate storm sewer systems (MS4) that exceed state and federal standards for water quality. Jackson says Austin has been committed to meeting those standards since the issuance of the city’s first MS4 stormwater permit in 1998, reporting on compliance activities annually and successfully completing audits conducted by both the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and EPA.

Individualized approach

The innovation award stems from Austin’s approach and the system’s focus on keeping the MS4 permit compliance programs user-friendly, allowing landowners, developers and other stakeholders to play a role in the selection of measures designed to effectively manage and reduce the flow of Austin’s stormwater, as well as improve the quality of discharges.

Jackson says the department’s goal is to work with both internal and external customers on developing plans that utilize new ways to meet the government standards without impinging on the individuality that is a common trademark of many Austin property owners.

From installation of standard stormwater management structures to paying an enhanced fee to the city in lieu of construction, property owners and developers in Austin have many choices on how to comply with the drainage regulations the city has developed over the years.

“We have a variety of best management practices and stormwater control measures that can be utilized by a development,” Jackson says. With the many options available, the department works to educate the development community to help it understand the appropriateness of the stormwater control measure options so that long-term effectiveness, operation and maintenance of the controls are considered during the selection and siting process.

Going green

According to the city’s 2017 annual State of the Environment report, an effort to update Austin’s Land Development Code is expected to contain key changes affecting the Watershed Protection Department. Chuck Lesniak, who has since retired as the department’s environmental officer, writes in the introduction to the annual report: “… there is a new emphasis on requiring ‘green’ stormwater infrastructure (GSI). GSI uses natural systems (soil and plants) to remove pollutants from stormwater runoff from development. In addition to removing pollutants, it can also reduce water needed to irrigate landscape and GSI in the form of rain gardens that can be an amenity for new development.”

Lesniak also highlighted that the city is considering changes in the code to help manage flooding problems, writing: “The second significant change proposed is in how runoff from development is managed to reduce the risk of flooding ... we currently don’t require old development to fix flooding caused by old, outdated drainage systems. The new proposal would require redeveloped property to contribute its ‘fair share’ to address flooding that it may be contributing to.”

Jackson says that as the work on the development code progressed, one of the key concerns of the Watershed Protection Department staff was to assure that new regulations don’t inadvertently leave out standards needed to maintain the water quality in the city.

“Austin is a very diverse community, and it’s a very dynamic community,” Jackson says. “It’s always changing, but the one thing we want to keep consistent is the environment.”

While the letter of the law is being reviewed and updated, the Watershed Protection Department staff remains just as committed to emphasizing the spirit of the law, Jackson says. “We try to empower our staff to think outside the box to help people who want to find a creative way to comply with drainage regulations.”

Local, state and federal standards still must be met, of course. The primary concerns are the effectiveness of an owner’s plan to slow the runoff from storms and remove pollutants and debris from the water before it wends its way to the Colorado River or infiltrates down to the Edwards Aquifer.

Helping landowners

Although standard stormwater management controls remain common, Jackson says there are other approaches that are just as effective but in many cases less visible than traditional drainage control infrastructure. In newly developing areas of Austin, it is easier for builders and landowners to plan for the space needed to create drainage structures, but in established neighborhoods and commercial districts, finding the space can be a challenge. She says that the city has been working with stakeholders for years, speaking to residents and developers building in established neighborhoods on the ways to use individual lots and small parcels of land to address drainage.

Those projects can often enhance the aesthe-tics of the property and the neighborhoods involved, Jackson says. She described one company’s effort to mimic the role of a natural wetlands area by utilizing existing topography or committing a portion of its lot to be graded lower than the rest of the property and then planting many of the plants and grasses one finds in a natural wetlands. Between rainstorms, the parcel is lush with native plantings and attracts a variety of birds and wildlife. When rain does come, the structure not only helps retain the water rolling off the owner’s buildings, driveways and parking lots, but it cleans it as well, filtering out many pollutants as the water percolates toward the region’s water table.

Jackson says “rain gardens” or “pollinator gardens” sown with plants not only solve drainage problems, but also attract the birds and the bees needed to pollinate and naturally spread the plants to other parcels in the city. Programs like that turn the runoff water into an asset rather than a concern, Jackson says, and are just one of many ways that the city works to assist private property owners in managing their own drainage while enhancing their property on a small scale.

Buyout program

Another way the city meets serious drainage challenges, Jackson says, is through the buyouts of flood-prone parcels. Sometimes this includes the purchase of multiple properties or may involve just one city lot experiencing ongoing acute flooding. Jackson says that the recognition of flood plains and the efforts to make the best use of them is important for Austin because “flooding has always been an issue and will always be an issue.”

Major historic flood events, including the most recent in 2013 and 2015, resulted in the city’s purchase of entire neighborhoods in the lower Onion Creek Watershed. The city is working with the Army Corps of Engineers to redevelop the properties as recreational parklands that can sustain flooding with minimal damage.

Jackson says the city has used buyouts elsewhere in Austin, though usually on a smaller scale. “We have a lot of other areas where buyouts were the best alternative,” she says. “We work with the communities to find a good use for the individual sites.” The city often is able to reduce its operational demands by encouraging the residents to become urban land stewards, adopting the area and assisting with maintenance responsibilities.

Overseeing Austin’s drainage issues not only requires the ability to work with and guide the private sector, it also requires the cooperation and commitment of many of the internal customers in the city’s other departments. Such cooperation can be as basic as training other departments’ employees to help the drainage crews find and fix problems with the drainage infrastructure. But it can be as detailed and comprehensive as getting Austin’s development officials and engineers to continue making drainage issues just as high a priority as other measures regulating the growth and construction of new private enterprises, from shopping centers to residential developments.

In-house help

Just as the Watershed Protection Department tries to build a cooperative relationship with private developers, landowners and residents, Jackson says the department tries the same approach with other departments and fellow city employees, from street sweeper operators to city hall and department heads.

“We don’t want to force-feed them anything; we really just want to work with them,” Jackson says. To that end, the Watershed Protection Department offers training sessions for people working in “programs that can affect our water quality and permit compliance.”

And because the operations of other departments can impact drainage and water quality in many different ways, Jackson says the Watershed Protection Department works hard to assure that it is easy for other departments to understand their operational and reporting obligations through routinely sharing information on the MS4 permit and the mandated compliance activities. “We try to make it super simple for them to report on its operations to us.”

She says that by utilizing the existing performance measures and reports already being generated by the other departments, they are able to streamline the communication and compliance documentation processes.  

Securing the cooperation of other departments has been assisted by an air of common interests that predates the Watershed Protection Department’s MS4 permit, Jackson says. “The beauty and ease of our jobs has been that the city was doing so much already that we could build on. Most people at the city really want to be here and want to make improvements to operations for the betterment of Austin.

“We have worked over time with other departments on best practice management,” Jackson says, so the protection of the city water resources becomes integral to any city operation. Sometimes this may mean another department needs to add new tasks or duties to its workers’ efforts in the field, but sometimes some of the best help entails little more than a sharp eye.

City employees in a variety of departments spend all or most of their days outside on the city streets or in and around city parks or open spaces, near creeks or other drainage structures. So the Watershed Protection Department staff has developed easy ways for those employees to identify and report potential drainage problems well before they become real issues during a torrential storm. When everyone from street sweepers and transit drivers to beat cops and firefighters understand the importance of reporting problems such as trash-clogged storm drain inlets or open channels obstructed by tangles of downed branches and natural debris, Jackson says the Watershed Protection Department staff is able to identify and address more problems, tracking drainage complaints and corrective efforts through use of an enterprise-level work order system, which has enhanced the department’s ability to keep up with the city’s growth.

“Asset management isn’t something you’ve heard a lot of in the past related to the stormwater drainage infrastructure,” Jackson says. But it’s something the Watershed Protection Department has been working on for some time now.

“We are using complaint and asset inspection data to track the condition and performance of our drainage infrastructure, identifying our current critical service needs, as well as our potential to meet anticipated future service levels. It’s always a balancing act between what’s expected and what you can provide based on what resources you have,” Jackson says. “We’re trying not to play a guessing game.”

Dog owners do their part

From live music to smoked brisket, people in Austin, Texas, have many loves. Ask them to make a list and you’ll find that their lakes and their dogs rank high on the list.

Therein lies a problem for residents of the state capital. According to someone who had the patience to do the math, the canine population of Austin — estimated at 120,000 — generates about 60,000 pounds of solid waste per day. That adds up to almost 2 million pounds of dog poop per month.

The bottom line is that if dog owners don’t do their duty and clean up behind their poodles, collies, bulldogs and mutts, there are literally tons of doggie doo lying about the city just waiting to ride the runoff from the next good rain into the creeks, rivers, and lakes that give Austin much of its character.

Roxanne Jackson, manager of the Field Operations Division of Austin’s Watershed Protection Department, says the threats from dog poop came to the forefront during dry times. “When we would go through drought years, we were really noting spikes in fecal matter levels in some of our water bodies, especially where you see a lot of dog activity at some of our parks, whenever it would rain,” she says.

The problems were most apparent near parks where people like to walk their dogs, and especially in parks where the Austin Parks and Recreation Department has fenced areas where dogs can be taken off their leashes and allowed to run free.

The quick answer was for the Watershed Protection Department staff to work with the Parks department to install multiple stations where people can pick up and dispose of free plastic bags they can use to pick up their dogs’ waste. The stations even include signs that demonstrate how owners should use the bags to keep their hands clean. Also included are waste receptacles where the bags can be tossed once they have been used.

But as Amanda Sullivan, an environmental conservation information specialist in the Watershed Protection Department’s education division notes, the parks aren’t the only place where owners need to be reminded about their responsibilities for cleaning up behind their dogs.

Sullivan’s primary responsibilities involve working with the public and property owners on spreading the word about Austin’s “Scoop the Poop” initiative. She works with homeowners associations, apartment complexes, pet-related merchants and leaders of local pet rescue organizations to help spread the word about the importance of owners picking up behind their pets.

Sullivan says she gets many calls from individuals who want to complain about neighbors who allow their dogs to leave deposits in their yards. People often call with the hope that the Scoop the Poop program can sic the police on neighbors who would rather share the filth rather than the wealth. But that’s not part of the job, Sullivan says. “We kind of like to use education to get owners to pick up their dogs’ waste.”

That doesn’t mean she can’t be of any help. Sullivan can direct private property owners to the Watershed Protection Department website where the Scoop the Poop initiative offers free laminated signs that can be posted where the dogs dare to go. A household is limited to a maximum order of two signs, and in a nod to the diversity of Austin’s populace, the signs offer the homeowners the option of one side that warns “Pet Waste Poollutes” or the flip side that offers a message in Spanish: “El Desecho De Las Mascotos Contamina.”


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