Sat. Jun 15th, 2024

Removing the Barton Creek sewer could enable further redevelopment of southwest Austin

By meerna Jun12,2024

Austin will begin assessing the removal of old sewer pipe running along Barton Creek in response to concerns about possible contamination of the line and to clear the way for further redevelopment around southwest Austin and nearby cities.

What’s going on

Councilmember Paige Ellis, who represents southwest Austin, drafted a resolution this spring that begins planning to remove the pipe from the Barton Creek Critical Water Quality Zone. The solution approved on May 30 requires city staff to submit a report on possible relocation by November.

Ellis said she is trying to address concerns about city sewage running near Barton Creek, as well as a long-term roadblock to modern development and other infrastructure improvements in southwest Austin.

“This is really a generational project for me and a way for structures from the 1970s and 1980s to come into the present and prepare for the future,” Ellis said in an interview. “We know the impact that people and infrastructure have on the environment, and this is not best practice. … There is no excuse to leave aging infrastructure in place and pretend there is no problem.


The Barton Creek Wastewater Interceptor Station runs over 2 miles through the Barton Hills and Zilker Park areas, with sections located in or near Barton Creek.

This line is the centerpiece of a sewer system that covers several square miles and also serves the West Lake Hills and Rollingwood jurisdictions.

The line is decades old and predates the 1992 enactment of the Save Our Springs ordinance, which established new environmental protections around Barton Springs. Since then, city regulations have generally prohibited new development, including utility lines in critical water quality zones such as Barton Creek.

The sewage interceptor that runs through the creek has been surveyed and upgraded, most recently in 2005, but is still in the waterway. Its capacity is also outdated, which has reportedly restricted some local development plans for years.

Zooming in

Given the route along Barton Creek, Ellis said she is “totally concerned” that old pipes may already be polluting the waterway with sewage from southwest Austin.

She pointed to reports of higher levels of E. coli and lower water chemistry in Barton Creek as examples of possible signs of contamination from the sewer system.

“Sometimes you don’t know where the leak is until someone comes out to identify it and try to fix it,” Ellis said. “It looks like there is a good chance something is leaking in a 25-30 year old pipe. “I won’t bet that at this stage of construction it is completely functional and tight, and it is a sewage pipe.”

The sewage line runs along the Barton Creek Greenbelt.  (Ben Thompson/Community Impact)
The Barton Creek Wastewater Interceptor Facility runs along the Barton Creek Greenbelt. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact)

According to Austin Water, sewer systems near Barton Springs are scheduled to be inspected on a five- and 10-year cycle and show no signs of poor condition.

Utility spokeswoman Amy Petri said Austin Water has established procedures for inspecting sewer pipes and that inspections conducted in 2009, 2010, 2021, 2022, 2023 and 2024 found “no reported structural defects or evidence of pipe leaks.”

“We use a risk-based approach to prioritize defect repairs and replacements for capital projects,” she said in an email. “Austin Water has partnered with Watershed Protection to coordinate efforts in areas they believe have high levels of E. coli bacteria, which could potentially originate from wastewater. We are working with Watershed to discover the source of the E. coli or demonstrate that the wastewater has not been sourced.”

A closer look

In addition to the environmental impact, upgrading outdated sewage infrastructure around Barton Creek could open the door to new development in the city’s southwest.

Ellis said many projects in her district — including some for affordable housing — have stalled over the years because of declining sewer system performance. His resolution asks for feedback from representatives of the proposed redevelopments to help guide next steps.

According to a representative of national shopping center and real estate company Simon Property Group, one such project could be Barton Creek Square.

Simon’s Stephen Shea said the company has been trying to redevelop the sprawling shopping center near MoPac and Capital of Texas Highway for about a decade. However, these plans were rejected due to low sewage capacity.

He said that thanks to the new infrastructure, it will be possible to continue the reconstruction in accordance with applicable regulations.

“Without a doubt, the potential of this site is unrealized and stuck in ruins due to constraints beyond our control,” Shea said on May 30. “We anticipate a dynamic redevelopment that will provide much-needed housing and improved environmental standards that have come into effect since the mall opened in 1981. I have heard that nonprofits have considered putting affordable housing on part of the existing parking lot. However, every affordable housing project faces the same obstacles as ours, especially the lack of sewage disposal.”

Austin property owners aren’t the only ones who could benefit from a new sewer system in the area. Officials from the neighboring towns of West Lake Hills and Rollingwood asked the City Council to adopt Ellis’ resolution considering the contract to use Austin’s sewer system.

Their city contracts control the amount, location and quality of wastewater that can be sent to Austin pipelines. While the use of septic tanks is common in both towns, the status of the Barton Creek interceptor was considered a key factor in their future planning, particularly in the case of Bee Caves Road.

“Our City Council is close to completing a rewrite of the city’s commercial code intended to encourage redevelopment of the commercial corridor and increase opportunities for retail and restaurant locations in Rollingwood,” Mayor Gavin Massingill wrote in a letter to Austin leaders . “However, future redevelopment may be hampered by limits on the amount of wastewater that Rollingwood can send to the City of Austin’s sewer system under the current wastewater agreement.”

West Lake Hills relies solely on Austin for wastewater treatment. City Administrator Trey Fletcher said switching to a different system would be a challenge even with existing restrictions, leaving prospects for growth or construction of new facilities uncertain. He also noted that leaders hope to overhaul their master plan, including a new look at the Bee Cave corridor and its water system needs.

“I think redevelopment — whether it’s opportunities in Austin or Rollingwood or West Lake Hills or unincorporated areas that could benefit from that — is the kind of wave that lifts all boats.” Fletcher said in an interview.

What’s next

In addition to housing and businesses, Ellis said any new development would benefit the area because it would be underpinned by stricter environmental regulations than many facilities built decades ago in southwest Austin.

“The practices of the 1980s are not what we practice today, for good reason. We need to ensure modern standards, new innovations, trying to ensure that people can live in smaller spaces in places that will not be flooded,” she said. “This is a conversation that is taking place in each of these footprints developed in the 1980s. Now we know better and we have the opportunity to do better for the next 30, 40 years because of our infrastructure.”

Before a pipe replacement report is completed this fall, Austin Water staff will analyze the southwest Austin area’s wastewater treatment system and its capacity needs. Petri said the utility has yet to determine which redevelopment or other stakeholders will be involved in this year’s process.

By meerna

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