New Water Policies Can Cut Pollution & Flooding in Austin

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Brian Zabcik

Local Advocates Back Changes to Development Code, Ask for More Protections

Environment Texas

AUSTIN — Local environmental groups today announced their support for changes to Austin’s land development code that will help reduce water pollution and flooding severity. The proposals will require future developments to retain a minimum amount of rainwater with on-site features, and to limit the amount of runoff flowing into the city’s drainage system. However, local leaders stated that additional changes still need be made to protect Austin’s safety and environment.

Save Barton Creek Association, Clean Water Action, and Environment Texas backed the code proposals in a joint letter sent to members of the Austin City Council, the Environmental Commission, the Planning Commission, and the Zoning and Platting Commission. The commissions are currently reviewing the second draft of the revised land development code as part of the CodeNext process. A third draft, which will incorporate the commissions’ recommendations, will go to the City Council for final review early next year.  

“The proposed changes for the water quality, landscaping, and drainage sections of the development code are essential to creating a cleaner, greener, and safer Austin,” said Angela Richter, executive director of Save Barton Creek Association. “However, there are still some major gaps. In particular, the city still needs to address the potential flood risk of missing middle housing and lot-by-lot increases in density. The total effect of these new developments across a watershed could pose a significant flood risk if they are not held to the same drainage requirements.”

Three new code provisions will increase the use of green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) to reduce runoff pollution. Features such as rain gardens, green roofs, permeable pavement, and rain collection cisterns are able to use soil, plants, and natural drainage to capture and cleanse stormwater where it falls. Ten Austin creeks are presently rated by the state as unsafe for swimming or fishing because of pollution from runoff containing chemicals, oils, litter, and animal waste. 
While the city already has some good GSI policies in place, a recent report from Environment Texas Policy & Research Center found that actual use of these features in Austin is much lower than expected. According to city statistics, all existing GSI features in Austin manage the drainage for only 2 percent of the city’s land mass. The report, Texas Stormwater Scorecard, is available at

One of the code proposals will require new developments and redevelopment to use GSI features to filter surface pollutants out of a defined amount of rainfall. Another provision will encourage the use of GSI in landscaping in and around parking lots, while a third provision will create GSI standards for developments with high amounts of impervious cover.

“Aging strip malls along major streets that were built without water quality controls or stormwater features are major contributors to local flooding and water pollution,” said David Foster, Texas Director of Clean Water Action. “It is imperative, as these properties are redeveloped, that they incorporate GSI features to reduce these harmful impacts.”

An important change in the drainage section of the development code will create a new standard for reducing the amount of runoff that may contribute to flooding. Under this new rule, both new developments and redevelopments will be required to maintain runoff peak flow rates at pre-development levels.

Under the existing code, redevelopments that do not increase the amount of impervious cover on a property are not required to make drainage improvements, even if the original development was built before Austin adopted its current detention requirements.

“These environmental code changes will fulfill some of the goals that were set in the Imagine Austin plan five years ago, and that were repeated in the City Council’s green infrastructure resolution this summer,” said Brian Zabcik, Clean Water Advocate at Environment Texas. “While the new water quality and drainage rules are necessary, the city should also have clear policies on how these regulations can reasonably be met by developments with high amounts of impervious cover, which may limited in how much rainwater they can feasibly retain or detain on-site.”

Though the water quality, landscaping, and drainage proposals for the development code have been endorsed by Save Barton Creek Association, Clean Water Action, and Environment Texas, the groups emphasized in their joint letter that further changes are needed. The groups have recommended adding the following provisions:

The threshold for water quality requirements, which are currently triggered when a development has 8,000 square feet or more of impervious cover, should be lowered to 5,000 square feet, as city staff originally proposed four years ago.

Landscaping features in new developments and redevelopments should be irrigated either by the city’s reclaimed water system or by water that is captured on-site, such as rainwater, air conditioning condensate, or greywater.

The proposed code change requiring runoff peak flow rates to be maintained at pre-development levels should also be applied to new residential developments with 3-9 units (“missing middle” housing that will be regulated under the code’s new “residential heavy” policy).

“The second draft of CodeNEXT came a step closer to realizing Imagine Austin’s vision of a green city,” said Richter of Save Barton Creek Association, “However, citizens must have a guarantee that they are not being placed in danger of increased flooding and decreased water quality as other Imagine Austin priorities are being met.”

The environmental groups’ joint letter, which includes additional code recommendations, is available here.