Protecting Our Waters

Austin city council approves green infrastructure requirements

Clean water

A bioswale that helps capture stormwater.

Last week the Austin City Council gave final approval to new green infrastructure requirements on development. The code changes will require “green stormwater controls, such as biofiltration ponds, rain gardens, rainwater harvesting, etc., for sites with less than 90% impervious cover” and “stormwater to flow into parking lot islands, medians, and peninsulas when feasible.”

From poor water and air quality, to deadly urban heat to ongoing drought concerns, Austin faces serious challenges to our environment and public health. 36% of our creeks have unsafe levels of fecal bacteria and nine dogs have died due to exposure to toxic algae in area lakes in recent years. This July was the hottest July on record. The city has more Ozone Action Days this year than in 8 years combined, putting the public, especially vulnerable populations like children, senior citizens and those with respiratory problems, at risk from unhealthy air pollution. Bees and other pollinators struggle to survive with habitat disappearing. And in the heart of “Flash Flood Alley,” Austin continues to experience significant and deadly flooding.

Green infrastructure, including rain gardens, green roofs, and permeable pavement, can play an important role in addressing all of these problems. By integrating nature into our cities, we can reduce runoff pollution from contaminating waterways, reduce ambient temperatures, remove air pollutants, create habitat for bees and wildlife and more.

The vote comes after years of work by Environment Texas and our allies and is a testament to the power of persistence and organizing. Our sister organization, Environment Texas Research and Policy Center, wrote a series of reports making the case for action, including Catching the Rain: How Green Infrastructure can Reduce Flooding and Improve Water Quality in Texas and Growing Greener: The Environmental Benefits of a Compact and Connected Austin in 2017, Swim At Your Own Risk: Bacteria Pollution in Texas Beaches and Waterways Threatens Public Health in 2018, and Texas Stormwater Scorecard: Ranking Texas cities on nature-based stormwater management in 2020, and also produced this video explaining the issue.

Many of our proposals were included in a proposed update to the city’s Land Development Code. When that update stalled out in 2021 due to a legal challenge, our clean water measures were left in limbo.

So Environment Texas pushed Council to move forward with the clean water measures on their own. We launched our Natural City, Healthy Waters campaign and sent canvassers door to door to talk to the public about this issue and generate thousands of petition signatures. We organized a Dogs for Clean Water event to help clarify the link between the dog deaths and the need for stronger policies on runoff pollution.

Environment Texas’ Luke Metzger joined with Austin Mayor Steve Adler in calling on the city to adopt green infrastructure requirements to reduce stormwater pollutionPhoto by Cesar Rangel | Used by permission

We brought together Austin environmental leaders to write a letter to Council. We secured media attention, including a front page story in the Austin American Statesman in March. 

Council Member Tovo agreed to offer a resolution and recruited four other members, Ann Kitchen, Leslie Pool, Vanessa Fuentes and Pio Renteria to co-sponsor it. We lobbied other Council Members to support it and testified several times before the full Council. After giving initial approval in May, the Watershed Protection Department wrote code language and vetted it with the public. And on Oct. 27, the Council formally adopted the changes into code.

There’s more work to be done. The city council decided, however, to push two additional green infrastructure measures – “Functional Green” green infrastructure requirements for properties with more than 80% allowable impervious cover and a requirement that new and redeveloped projects to use greenfield conditions as a baseline when calculating drainage requirements – to next year. We’ll watchdog that process and work to make those proposals become law too.

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