As noted last week, in the spirit of the season, we are focusing on some of the accomplishments of the Austin City Council that don’t get as much attention as some of their high profile misadventures. As a source we are using accomplishments that Mayor Steve Adler laid out in his August 30 State of the City speech. This article marks part 2 of 2. Last week we covered affordable housing.

For instance, Adler thanked Austin Public Health (APH) leadership and staff for their ongoing work during the COVID 19 pandemic. He credited them with having “helped keep Austin’s Covid death rate at less than half that in the State of Texas.” The Mayor added, “If the State had the same Covid death rate as Austin-Travis County, more than 25,000 Texans would not have died of this virus. More than 25,000 lives would not have been lost.”

That’s a very good point. APH leadership and staff definitely deserve a lot of credit (as we’ve said here before), along with medical responders, and front line workers and also thousands of Austin citizens who rose to the challenge and followed health guidelines (all of whom Adler also warmly praised). Elected leadership also deserves some credit on this one. That particularly includes Adler for taking on Governor Greg Abbott over the Governor’s strident pandering against mask requirements and vaccine mandates. Those gubernatorial policies, which go against public health recommendations, have undoubtedly led to unnecessary deaths. Abbott’s cruel pandering on mask mandates in schools also led to COVID cases in children that did not need to happen. 

Adler continued to hammer Abbott in his State of the City speech (which occurred just as the new school year was beginning), accusing the Governor of “affirmatively trying to stop local school boards from doing what all the experts say is best to keep our children safe.” The Mayor added, “Parents across the state should be outraged and make their anger known.”

Barton Springs 

In a very short segment of his speech Adler proclaimed, “The water in Barton Springs remains clean and cool.” It is true that Barton Springs remains an astounding oasis in the heart of Austin and is still a safe and joyous place to swim.  Nonetheless, multiple threats to the survival of the springs and Barton Creek remain. 

Council Members Leslie Pool, Kathie Tovo, Ann Kitchen, Alison Alter and Paige Ellis have been the Council Members most focused on protecting the springs and carrying on the traditional struggle. In particular Pool, with her historical memory of the Barton Springs struggle, has been a warrior on this issue. Also, Adler has engaged in some regional efforts aimed at helping protect the springs. Not all members of the 10-1 Councils have made the springs a priority or high profile issue, but they have kept previous protections in place, like the 1992 citizen-initiated Save Our Springs Ordinance, and supported various staff efforts to protect the springs.

In September, shortly after the Mayor’s State of the City speech there was a distressing development on this front as iconic Sculpture Falls on Barton Creek upstream from the springs was closed for swimming because the toxin cylindrospermopsin was found in the water and at least one swimmer got sick. This is a sad and serious development, but does not appear to be tied to any Council policy or change that they made. 

A September 24 press release from the City’s Watershed Protection Department (WPD) said:

“This incident is different from previous incidents of harmful algae in the Austin area in several ways. It is a different toxin with different health effects. The toxins were found in water samples rather than in the algae, which increases the risk of human exposure from recreational use. In addition, the toxin was found at a popular swimming hole in a creek environment, rather than in a lake or reservoir.” 

WPD added, “Cylindrospermopsin may cause liver and kidney damage. According to the EPA, acute human and animal health effects of exposure to this toxin include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Vomiting
  • Bloody diarrhea.” 

WPD water quality monitoring in September discovered the unsafe levels. October readings however, found levels well within the safe range. Sculpture Falls was reopened for swimming in early November. 

Brent Bellinger of WPD told the Independent that the Department was not able to pinpoint a specific source for the toxin. “We haven’t pinned down the drivers yet,” he said, but added that WPD staff is working this winter to try and do so. Bellinger advised swimmers to not swim in stagnant water which is when the risk would be by far the greatest. WPD made similar points in press releases. More attuned to other pollutants, Bellinger also advised against swimming immediately after big storms.

Bellinger’s comments were consistent with a November 5 WPD press release which announced that swimming at Sculpture Falls was safe again, but warned, “It is possible that the higher toxin levels or a different cyanotoxin will return without warning in the future. This is more likely when the flow drops. People should use caution and avoid swimming if the water is warm, if it appears stagnant, if there’s scum or film on the water or if there are mats of algae. This is true for other natural water bodies as well. You should also avoid swimming for a few days after heavy rainfall when bacteria levels tend to be higher.”

WPD also suggested that dog owners keep their dogs out of the water: “Although there does not appear to be any immediate risk to dogs, dog owners may want to keep their pets away from the water. The harmful algae could quickly return without warning, and dogs are more susceptible to some toxins, and several have died when exposed.”

(The Independent will continue to monitor the Sculpture Falls situation.)

Rail Transit

Adler took particular note of the voter approved rail system which is working its way through planning and design, “We’re well on our way to a new mass public transit system with subway rail downtown, a tunnel underneath Lake Austin, and crossing it, soon a new pedestrian/transit-only bridge.” Rail may be the most enduring positive aspect of Adler’s and the early 10-1 Councils’ legacy. I realize that some readers disagree and believe that rail will prove to have been a mistake. Of course there’s always the danger of it going off the track, so to speak, with the Council’s propensity for micro management. Still, in my view, transportation has long been Austin’s environmental blind spot. Rail begins to at least offer a serious alternative to traveling by car. 

By saying transportation is Austin’s environmental blind spot I mean that efforts to address emissions from cars have not gotten the level of community attention or activism that other fundamental environmental issues have for decades. For example, Austin Energy has long been a national, even international, leader in renewable energy and conservation and in advocacy for electric vehicles. The leadership and staff at Austin Energy deserve a huge amount of credit for this, but decades of community activism for renewable energy and conservation, followed by Council policy making, were drivers of Austin Energy becoming a national leader.

Similarly, Austin Water provides high quality drinking water, treats wastewater to very high standards, manages preserve lands to protect Barton Springs water quality and endangered species, and is very focused on climate issues (Full Disclosure: I worked at both Austin Energy and Austin Water). 

The Watershed Protection Department, discussed briefly above, has long been a national leader and ground breaker in protecting water quality, in particular for Austin’s iconic swimming holes. This too was demanded and made possible by the will of Austin citizens and policy changes by earlier Councils aimed at implementing that will. 

Likewise, Austin Resource Recovery has long had extensive recycling programs and waste reduction programs and now offers curbside composting — all resulting from citizen activism and Council policy setting. 

In all those areas — power, water, resource recovery — Austin has been a national leader. But, all the while cars in Austin constantly spewed tons of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere without any plans for a solid alternative — although some Councils tried. And, yes, Capital Metro provides decent bus service, and certainly much better than in earlier eras. Buses, however, are trapped in traffic with cars, making multiple stops, and thus are never going to offer true competition to the car. Rail can provide a true alternative because it will have its own right of way and thus can compete with cars in how fast, safely and comfortably it gets someone from point to point. It will not be just a bus stuck in the traffic with all the cars. 

Rail will also give transit dependent Austinites, many of them low income, a better way to get around — at least in the areas of town where rail will go. And, yes, rail will begin to reduce emissions from transportation. It will take a while to truly make a difference, but at least the Council finally succeeded in getting us started.

(In Part 1 of this story, on affordable housing, the Independent attributed a plan to amend the Land Development Code to allow housing in commercially zoned areas to Mayor Steve Adler. I failed to mention that Council Member Alison Alter teamed with Adler in developing the plan. We quickly updated the story to reflect that, but also note it here for those who had already read the original version. )


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