Dams · Urban Water Sector

Watershed Protection in Austin: Governance structures we can learn from

“I swam in the Barton Springs 20 years back. Austin saw explosive growth in these years and is one of the fastest growing cities in the US currently. I can still swim in the Barton Springs. I think this is the single biggest contribution of the Watershed Protection Department.”-Denise Delaney, Environment Program Coordinator, Watershed Protection Department, Austin, Texas.

When I came into Austin, the state Capital of Texas, Indian rivers were firmly on the mind. Pune River Restoration Plan was kicking up. The legal battle against a road inside the Pune riverbed was getting a favourable order from NGT. People of Delhi were fighting their long-drawn battle for protecting the floodplains of Yamuna. A huge People’s rally was held in Mumbai to protect the Dahisar River, which to some would appear beyond redemption. Bangalore Lakes were on fire again. People are looking for solutions, but transparent responsive governance around rivers seems like the biggest missing piece in the puzzle.

In this conundrum, the first thing I noticed upon entering Austin on a cloudy day were roadside markings which proclaimed “You are now entering Edwards Aquifer Environmentally Sensitive Recharge Zone.” On the side of our crowded temporary stay was a detention pond. A Lovely feature which was full of water when it rained and was nearly empty two days later. Such retention and detention ponds were a regular feature of Austin as I was to discover later. Walking on the sideway my son spotted cute frogs, salamanders and fish embedded into the pavement and saying this outlet “Drains into the creek”.

Austin, located in Central Texas Colorado basin in the foothills of Texas Hill Country, is home to numerous dam reservoirs, rivers, and waterways including Lady Bird Lake, Barton Springs, McKinney Falls, the Colorado River, Lake Travis, and Lake Walter E. Long. Colorado River stands (not flows, because it is totally dammed up) in the heart of the city. As someone uneducated in US geography, I was surprised to know that this is not the iconic Colorado that flows into the Gulf of California, but Texas Colorado which originates and meets the Gulf of Mexico in Texas itself.

Dammed Colorado in Austin Photo: Parineeta Dandekar

Austin was known to me earlier only as the Live Music Capital of the World but it seems that the city is somewhat of a leader when it comes to managing its creeks and streams. And there are several of them. Around 66 creeks that drain into the Colorado. Austin also falls in the Edwards Aquifer Zone, with its own managing Authority.  According to Wikipedia, “The Edwards Aquifer is one of the most prolific artesian aquifers in the world. Located on the eastern edge of the Edwards Plateau in the U.S. state of Texas, it is the source of drinking water for two million people, and is the primary water supply for agriculture and industry in the aquifer’s region. In addition, the Edwards Aquifer feeds the Comal and San Marcos springs, provides spring-flow for recreational and downstream uses in several river basins, and is home to several unique and endangered species.”

A cursory search about watershed management in Austin brought me to the Watershed Protection Department, founded in 1991. This is separate from Austin Water which is also a government department entrusted with water supply and wastewater treatment. Originally called the Drainage Utility, the Watershed Protection Department (WPD) was established in 1991 to manage the City’s creeks, drainage systems and water quality programs. Its focus is reducing the flooding, erosion and water pollution in the area of its mandate.

We have spent millions of rupees in bettering the quality of water of rivers in urban India, but this institutional structure was very new and hugely interesting. What started as a curious search led to a visit to the Department and a discussion with Denise Delaney, Environmental Program Coordinator at the WPD. Denise warmly welcomed me to the Office to discuss the functioning of the Department. The WPD is funded almost fully by the drainage charges paid by Austin residents. Drainage charge is calculated individually for each property and depends on the permeable area that you have on your property as “More impermeable surface means you are contributing more to the runoff and chances of pollution are higher”. Impervious cover includes: Rooftops, Patios, Driveways, Parking lots, etc., that do not absorb rainfall. Impervious cover has a significant impact on stormwater runoff as it increases the amount and speed of stormwater and also increases the amount of pollutants in stormwater.

There are a number of rebates and incentives to check run off, these include setting up rain gardens in home and commercial premises to absorb rain, installing rainwater harvesting structures, detention and retention ponds, etc. Austin has hundreds of Rain gardens which catch rain for 48 hours and let it seep into the ground. During a training program organized by the WPD, I visited several rain gardens set up by the WPD as well as private developers to encourage infiltration.

Above: Paticipants at the Rain Garden Workshop organised by the Watershed Protection Dept Photo: Parineeta Dandekar

I was reminded of Pune. As a part of the High Court appointed Committee to look at Storm Water Drainage project in Pune which was essential aiming to concretize all the streams and rivulets and build over them, I suggested to the City Engineer that we need to integrate Rainwater Harvesting structures and their governance with storm water plans. I was told in no unclear terms that the two are entirely unrelated and should not be mixed! May be the Pune City Engineer needs exposure to what is happening elsewhere.

Main divisions in the WSD includes Environmental Resource Management which develops and implements policies, programs and improvement projects that support water quality protection and erosion control. Field Operations Division protects and manages Austin’s natural waterways, engineered channels, drainage pipelines and storm water ponds that together make up our city’s drainage system. Watershed Engineering department is meant to protect the city from the devastating effects of flooding. Flash flooding is one of the Austin’s top weather-related emergency. Watershed Policy & Planning Division which works on rules and ordinances through the stakeholder process, ensures compliance with state and federal regulations and supports the department’s GIS functions.

Major Programs of WPD include Austin Invasive Plants Management, Austin’s Reservoir Resource Management, those related to Creek Flooding to take up projects to protect lives and reduce property damage when these creeks overflow their banks.

Very interesting they here have Environmental Integrity Index, designed to continuously monitor and assess the chemical, biological, and physical integrity of Austin’s creeks and streams. All watersheds are monitored on a two-year rotating basis. Erosion Control and Stream Restoration Programme, are taken up to develop stable stream systems. Flood Early Warning System monitors rainfall, water levels and low water crossings in Austin 24*7. During a flood, the department works with emergency managers for effective and timely community response. The Groundwater Team studies the caves, sinkholes and fractures that allow water to pass into the limestone aquifer and reviews development plans to protect recharge features and springs. Staff trace the flow of water underground through dye testing, and monitor and evaluate the water quality of the groundwater as it springs to the surface.

Local Flooding Before stormwater runoff reaches a creek, it flows through a system of ditches and drainage pipes. According to WPD, Austin has over 1,100 miles of such systems.  The Local Flood Program evaluates and upgrades these systems to address flooding. Pollution Prevention and Reduction Program works to prevent or minimize polluting discharges to Austin’s creeks and lakes through the Spills and Complaints Response and Stormwater Discharge Permit programs. Regional Stormwater Management Program provides developers an alternative to providing on-site detention ponds.  Riparian Restoration Program undertakes several restoration projects along creeks and the Colorado River.

Austin is home to three species of aquatic salamander that occur nowhere else in the world except in and around this city. The Salamander program undertakes several educational and restoration initiatives to protect this species. Stormwater Management Solutions program designs, implements and evaluates systems that reduce pollution in creeks, lakes and aquifers. The program seeks to use stormwater as a resource rather than a waste product.


(Please see for further details:http://www.austintexas.gov/department/watershed-protection/programs)

Watershed Protection Master Plan is the department’s strategic plan that assesses erosion, flood and water quality problems in Austin. It also prioritizes and implements solutions that address these problems. Solutions include projects, programs and regulations.

The WSD is actively involved in several innovative streambank restoration projects like the Battle Bend Water Quality Improvement which includes putting a new playing field inside a Park. The field will act as storm water control measure to capture and treat runoff. The stormwater control measure will filter this water through a sandy soil media that removes pollutants before the water enters Williamson Creek. During dry weather, the level, turf-covered field provides surface for sports or informal recreation.

Eliza Spring Daylighting Project aims to help protect the endangered Barton Springs and Austin Blind Salamanders, by recreating a stream that once flowed from Eliza Spring, one of the four springs in Zilker Park that are collectively known as Barton Springs.

Above: Eliza Springs Daylighting Project Photo: Parineeta Dandekar

Several flood control projects include buying out houses in consistently flood prone areas.

Erosion Control and Stream Restoration: The Stream Restoration Program utilizes stream stabilization techniques such as reinforced earth bank reconstruction and rock weirs to protect structures and public infrastructure from erosion damage. Native materials and vegetation are used as much as possible to enhance the natural setting. The program is responsible for conducting erosion site assessments along Austin creeks, designing stream stabilization projects, overseeing construction, and monitoring repaired sites.  Watershed Protection Department claims that it has restored over 27,000 feet of Austin streams since 1997.

The WSD has also published a guide to the creekside owners on how to protect their homes from floods and also how to protect the creeks from impacts.[i]

Riparian Restoration: Removal of native vegetation degrades water quality and reduces wildlife habitat.  By changing maintenance practices, adding “Grow Zone” buffers, and restoring natural plants along Austin’s waterways contributes in healing urban streams and providing a greenbelt network for wildlife and future generations. I have seen several such “Grow Zones” along Barton Creek and the Colorado River. The Department also provides detailed guidance on how citizens can initiate stream restoration and can be a partner in the Adopt a Creek Program.

Above: Riparian Protection Grow Zones along Colorado Photo: Parineeta Dandekar

Floodplain Management and Regulations: About 10% of land in Austin is in the floodplain, subject to the dangers of flash flooding. The Floodplain Office administers local and federal development rules, meant to limit damage and protect lives, and maintains floodplain maps and models. The office maintains floodplain maps and hydrologic and hydraulic models, administers floodplain regulations, provides information to help protect property from floods and reviews applications to build or remodel in the floodplain.

The WSD brings out a detailed Watershed map of Austin city, with a color-coded watershed regulation areas indicating recharge and discharge zones, which have different governance rules and mechanisms.


The Department also undertakes several Educational Programs for Citizens, Landscape Professionals, School Kids, Volunteers etc., on various ways to protect and restore their groundwater, creeks and river.

Watershed Ordinances: A cornerstone of the WSD work has been through the Watershed Ordinances which are a tool by which the City Council, with public review and input, modifies and improves Austin’s Land Development Code (LDC). The LDC contains the rules that land development projects must follow in order to be legally permitted. Examples of watershed protection ordinance provisions include: stream and sensitive environmental feature setbacks; floodplain and erosion hazard protections; requirements for flood detention and water quality treatment; and impervious cover limits.

In October 2013, city Council passed the Watershed Protection Ordinance (WPO), a comprehensive overhaul of Austin’s environmental and drainage code. Main features of this Ordinance are better stream buffers, improved floodplain protections and new erosion hazard provisions. The ordinance extends creek buffers—setbacks to ensure that development is not built too close to waterways—for over 400 miles of smaller-“headwaters” streams. The WPO also recognizes the importance of protecting natural floodplains and the need to plan for and guard against natural and human-caused creek erosion.

Interestingly, as Denise tells me a public movement was instrumental in the inception and strengthening of Watershed Department of Austin.  In 1990, Save Our Springs Alliance sprung to life as a loose coalition of citizens fighting a massive development proposal for the Barton Creek watershed. On June 7, 1990, more than 1000 citizens signed up to speak to Austin city council in opposition to the planned 4,000-acre Barton Creek Development Plan. After an all-night meeting and overwhelming voting by the community, council was forced to unanimously rejected the plan, and a movement began to strengthen the 1986 Comprehensive Watersheds ordinance under the acronym SOS: “Save Our Springs”. (Please see : http://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2012-08-03/the-sos-ordinance-turns-20/, http://www.sosalliance.org/) bartonsprings

From: http://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2012-08-03/the-sos-ordinance-turns-20/

In 1992, communities which came together under SOS Alliance petitioned for Save Our Springs Ordinance to protect the quality of water in the fragile Barton Springs watershed. This was a “watershed” moment in many senses for Austin which from there on made notable progress in protecting not only Barton Springs and Creek but all creeks in Austin.

Barton Creek Green Belt Photo: Parineeta Dandekar

This is just a glimpse of the work of WPD in Austin. There are many gaps here as I’m still trying to understand the system. I’m sure it will have its share of problems and conflicts too.

A problem remains that the Colorado River in the city is heavily regulated and controlled by the dams of Lower Colorado Lake Authority. Let us hope there will be steps to convert the river into its original character and steps towards more benign ways of flood control and electricity generation.

However, a well-equipped and self-sustaining Watershed Department for a City which performs myriad roles and has been more or less successful in protecting the water quality and character of Austin’s streams is something we can learn from.

In India, most of the water-related decisions and projects of the city are under the municipal corporation or the Water Supply and Sanitation Department or the Public Works or at times the Irrigation Department. No one is responsible for the rivers and streams as a whole, nor is there any definition of what are rivers and streams and what rules govern them. We do not have watershed maps or stream maps, we do not have clear buffer zones along streams and river neither do we have strictly enforceable development rules to protect groundwater recharge areas, urban streams and rivers. In the absence of this, urban streams are only nallahs and drains, to be treated as dumping grounds, encroached on, put in sewage and to be built over. The only time we remember them is during the floods when we see them as a hazard or a nuisance.

Let us hope that while we continue to spend millions of rupees in River Restoration, River Improvement, Storm water Development Projects in a piecemeal way, we pay some attention to the governance and institutional structures that will help protecting our rivers and streams in a sustainable, long term basis. There is a lot we can learn from others here, including from the experience of Austin.

Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP (parineeta.dandekar@gmail.com, currently in Austin)


[i] http://www.austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/Watershed/growgreen/creekside_design.pdf

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