2017 State of Our Environment Report
Figure 1. Healthy creeks provide opportunities to connect with nature in ways that make our lives better.
Creeks are cradles for the waters that flow into our drinking water supply, but our creeks offer much more than clean water to drink. Properly managed, they can support critical habitat for wildlife and provide a resilient landscape that transports floodwaters. Opportunities to hike, fish, swim, and relax alongside healthy streams with diverse vegetation make our community special. Development and pollution can quickly degrade the quality of these creeks and eliminate the benefits they provide, so the City conducts routine monitoring and special studies to inform policy decisions and solutions to preserve the integrity of our waters. The health of our creeks and floodplains is a barometer for our environmental stewardship.
The “Ready, Set, Plant!” program, an important part of our creek restoration efforts, includes planting tree saplings to help grow future forests along our creeks. In collaboration with Tree Folks, Austin ParksFoundation, and Keep Austin Beautiful, thousands of dedicated volunteers brave cold winter days that are perfect for planting very young trees.
Figure 2. Ready, Set, Plant! In February, volunteers planted saplings in Heritage Oaks Park.
Figure 3. Annual and cumulative number of saplings planted by volunteers at “Ready, Set, Plant!” events along our creeks. Since 2012, the “Ready, Set, Plant!” program, the City, and our partners have planted more than 45,000 saplings.
The Environmental Integrity Index (EII) is one of the programs used to evaluate the chemical, physical, and biological health of Austin’s creeks. Routine sampling of 49 watersheds provides spatial and temporal resolution to aspects such as nutrients, bacteria, aquatic life and pollutants in sediment. Although most watershed scores remained similar to the previous year, a few have increased and a few have decreased.
Figure 4. 2016-2017 Environmental Integrity Index Scores. Lower integrity scores are typical in urban areas due to intense development in the past that did not have progressive environmental rules.
Figure 5. The Pollution Prevention and Reduction (PPR) team responds to chemical spills, sewage leaks, sediment discharges, petroleum spills, illegal dumping, tanker accidents, and much more.
The City’s Pollution Prevention and Reduction (PPR) team of investigators is charged with protecting waterways by enforcing local, state, and federal water quality regulations. Through the Spills & Complaints Response Program (SCRP) this group implements the 24-Hour Pollution Hotline.
Investigators are on call 24/7, responding to pollution emergencies to identify the causes of pollution and the responsible parties. When they find pollution problems, investigators recommend corrective actions to mitigate environmental impacts and return the site to “pre-spill” conditions. For example, in August 2017, investigators received notice of a spill through the 24-Hour Pollution Hotline. Upon arrival, investigators found a storage tank that had exploded within a milk-processing plant, resulting in a spill of thousands of gallons of milk sludge. That sludge entered nearby storm inlets and flowed into the Colorado River.
Figure 6. Milk sludge trapped in storm pipe
Figure 7. Milk discharging to Colorado River
Figure 8. Colorado River returned to “pre-spill” conditions
PPR met with facility engineers and learned that the catastrophic failure occurred overnight. Investigators worked with the facility management, who immediately began containment and recovery efforts. A contractor who specializes in environmental cleanup removed milk sludge trapped in a storm pipe by flushing fresh water into the pipe and pumping out the contaminated water at the end of the pipe. These efforts recovered an estimated 12,000 gallons of milk waste by the end of the day.
Figure 9. Distribution of various pollutant types encountered during SCRP investigations, 2011-2016
When not responding to emergencies, the PPR team helps prevent discharges under the Stormwater Discharge Permit Program, conducting routine environmental inspections at local businesses to ensure compliance. Permitted sites include industrial and high-risk businesses such as auto repair shops, salvage yards, and various manufacturing and processing facilities. When problems are found, inspectors provide direction on how to stop discharges and perform remediation.
Obviously, PPR investigators never experience a dull moment. They often work with Austin Fire, Austin Water, the Law Department, law enforcement, and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). In 2017, PPR investigated 1,054 pollution complaints and inspected 370 permitted facilities. This resulted in the removal of nearly 400,000 gallons of pollutants from the environment.