San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

April 26th, 2010
County, feds to begin flood control study

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Hays County Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos), Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle), Halff Associates, Inc Vice President Mike Moya and Hays County Grants Administrator Jeff Hauff. Photo by Sean Batura.

By SEAN BATURA
News Reporter

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) are waiting on a commitment of $390,000 in Hays County dollars for the proposed first phase of a flood risk management and ecosystem restoration study in the Lower Colorado River Basin.

An interim Lower Colorado River Basin-wide (LCRB) feasibility study, to be overseen by LCRA and conducted primarily by USACE, is intended to determine ways of providing flood risk management measures in Hays County. This may result in the establishment of safeguards against flood-related hazards to life and property, and, as a side benefit, the restoration of sensitive habitat in an approximately 295 square-mile area of northern Hays County.

The federal government projects that Phases 1a and 1b of the study will cost $1.48 million. The federal government projected its funding contribution to the study at $740,000-$770,350, which may vary even more depending on the results of negotiations with contractors, and depending on the whether the county opts to provide in-kind services.

The Texas Water Development Board awarded the county a grant that would provide 50 percent matching funds for the county’s portion of the study, assuming a county contribution of about $130,000 per year for the three years of Phase 1a and Phase 1b. The precise scope and cost of Phase 1c have yet to determined.

“At the end of the study phase, the feasibility report usually has what we call a ‘recommended plan,'” USACE Fort Worth District COE Project Manager Stacy Gray said last week. “And that recommended plan may be a construction project — that’s typically the way the Corps goes. It may be an ecosystem restoration project, where we go in and restore natural habitat, but that’s what we call ‘the project’ at that point. And, ultimately that’s where we’re trying to go.”

Phase 2 of the feasibility study would involve a flood risk assessment of the Blanco River Basin area and the creation of a separate agreement between the county and the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority (GBRA). Neither the county nor GBRA has made a formal request to USACE to begin Phase 2.

Gray said last week that it is currently impossible to reliably estimate what the cost of Phase 2 may be. The two phases of the Interim LCRB Feasibility Study may take from six to seven years to complete.

Examples of possible construction projects include levees, flood walls, channel modifications, and other structures designed to control, divert, or exclude the flow of water from flood-prone areas. Nonstructural measures included in the recommended plan may involve removing or prohibiting damageable properties from the flood-prone areas, the raising of structures, and floodplain evacuation. Floodplain evacuation may involve efforts by local government to buy private land in flood-prone areas and keep the area clear of damageable structures.

Federal and county officials have not determined the costs or estimated the funding sources of the aforementioned construction activities.

Gray said there may be multiple recommended projects, which may involve USACE, the Texas Water Development Board, Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPW), or another entity.

Hays County commissioners, none of whom raised objections to implementing the feasibility study last week, may vote to adopt the plan Tuesday or next week.

Initiation of the interim LCRB feasibility study requires the execution of a contract — or interlocal agreement — between LCRA and Hays County. LCRA would serve as project manager for the study and Hays County would provide funding in the amount of about $130,000 each year for three years. LCRA would collect funds from the county for payment to USACE, which would conduct most of the work, assuming additional federal funds are forthcoming.

“After we update or develop all of our hydrologic and hydraulic modeling, we’ll integrate that with the economics and environment (components),” told Gray county commissioners last week. “The economics is the value, the structures themselves, the land areas. When you sustain damages from a storm event, where are they happening, how much is happening — that’s what the economics is going to tell us. Environmentally-speaking, what we’ll do is identify areas that we don’t need to be messing with — maybe there’s some environmentally-sensitive habitat there, maybe there’s something of historical significance there that we don’t want to mess with, or maybe we’ve got something that’s not really of a quality that the county finds useful and we might want to do something to restore that habitat to its natural state.”

Richardson-based firm Halff Associates, Inc., would probably provide hydraulic-related services to USACE in the course of the feasibility study. The federal government and the county would probably split the costs of Halff Associates’ services, which are included in the aforementioned cost estimate.

During the last week’s workshop, Gray presented commissioners with a project management plan (PMP), which, she said, the county, LCRA and USACE have been negotiating since December 2008. The PMP outlines the feasibility study’s budget, schedule and the three entities’ roles.

The feasibility study would involve USACE coordinating its efforts with government entities such as TPW, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the Edwards Aquifer Authority (EAA), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-Wimberley) expressed concerns about the number of governmental entities being involved. One concern raised during court was the possibility of congressional funds drying up after the feasibility study commences.

LCRA Project Manager John McLeod said his organization has undertaken seven such studies that have worked out very effectively.

“Individual counties have a difficult time working in a small area to bring the Corps or the federal government together,” McLeod said. “So we have found over the last 10 years, I’ve been involved with this, from the very beginning, that working with the congressional districts, working with the individual counties, that through this partnership, we can actually bring the Corps of Engineers to individual communities in a pretty effective way. Money’s always an issue — it’s just life. But we’ve got a pretty good record of continually funding this study for the Corps. It goes up and down. We’ve actually even gotten construction money the first time. We got construction money in this year’s budget for the Onion Creek study. That was a completed study … I think we’ve had an effective relationship with the Corps, and more importantly, effective with the communities that we help to serve.”

Conley said his concerns about inefficiency and wasted taxpayer dollars were alleviated by McLeod’s statement.

“My personal experience — and it is not with the Corps — there are a lot of federal agencies out there that, quite frankly, have no sensitivity to local costs and to what’s going on,” Conley said. “And that’s something that bothers me and gives me a little heartburn, and just something I wanted to get up-front as we get into this long-standing relationship … I don’t see that happening here, I don’t anticipate that happening, I hope that it won’t happen, but it needs to be said, that everybody here in the room understands how important that is to me and, I believe, to this court.”

McLeod said the county’s contract with LCRA would contain a clause allowing for cancellation by either party with 60-days written notice.

“It’s pretty straightforward,” McLeod said. “There are not particularly many penalties for early termination.”

Phase 1a and 1b of the feasibility study will assess the region’s risk for damaging floods, examining 210 square miles including Onion Creek, Bear Creek and Little Bear Creek near the Travis County line. Phase 1b would involve USACE examining approximately 85 square miles, which includes the Pedernales Rivers. Included in both phases would be an assessment of approximately 250 stream miles, about 140 miles of which would involve a very detailed study, with USACE measuring every bridge and culvert and examining the associated topography.

The rest of the Phase 1 study area will include assessments of flood plains, flooding problem areas, and what Gray referred to as “key items” like bridges and culverts — though this area would not receive as much attention as the stream mile regions. Gray said completion of Phase 1a and the beginning of Phase 1b could occur by September 2011, and the initiation of Phase 1c could happen by January 2013.

The federal government has not estimated the cost of Phase 1c, and Gray said such an estimate is impossible at this point and would “totally depend” on the results of Phases 1a and 1b, though the federal government would probably pay half the cost. The scope of Phase 1c would be formulated for areas identified in phases 1a and 1b.

About 10 years ago, the LCRA asked USACE to help conduct the LCRB feasibility study, said Gray, who added that USACE has examined the Colorado River and is now “branching out” to assess flood management risks associated with the river’s tributaries. In December 2008, LCRA requested inclusion in the Interim LCRB Feasibility Study, Gray said.

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