City of Austin pays property owner $25k for failing to fix 42-year-old drainage problem

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Austin, TX

While it waits on $8.5 million in federal emergency funds to try to fix a 42-year-old drainage problem, the city of Austin is paying a property owner in the path of the problem $25,000 for failing to fix the issue six years ago.

On March 6, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman in Austin ordered the city to pay $25,000 to Michael Kleinman, whose smoke shop, Planet K, and home at 3111 E. Cesar Chavez St. abuts the Colorado River next to a drainage channel known as Country Club Creek West.

Runoff from Country Club Creek West, running through Roy G. Guerrero Colorado River Park, formed a large sandbar in the river behind Kleinman’s property — injuring him aesthetically and recreationally in violation of the federal Clean Water Act, Pitman wrote in his judgement.

Pitman ordered the payment in lieu of Kleinman’s request that he be given some sort of formal advisory role in helping the city find a permanent solution to the runoff from the creek.

Kleinman has also asked that Austin taxpayers be responsible for his attorney and expert fees at a cost of $110,000, according to court documents.

The penalty could be considered interest on the $1.1 million city taxpayers underwrote for a solution in 2012, according to a story in the Austin American-Statesman. City engineers at the time dug a new channel for Country Club Creek West and gave the channel an erosion control bedliner and a rock berm. They finished the project with a pedestrian footbridge upstream.

All of it was washed away in the historic flood of 2015. Country Club Creek channel is not only 10 feet lower, its swift, steep, eroding drop is rapidly moving inland, according to the Statesman story.

Help is on the way, but not very quickly. In February three years after the flooding, Janna Renfro, a city Watershed Protection Department engineer, announced the Federal Emergency Management Agency approved an $8.5 million grant to complete the Country Club Creek project.

Stabilizing 2,000 feet of the creek channel with concrete steps and building a new crossing is estimated to cost $13 million. Before the grant, the city had earmarked $5.5 million in its budget and the Parks and Recreation Department was prepared to contribute $2.5 million, according to a story in the Austin Monitor.

The project, however, has already lost a year and will not begin until 2021, the story says.

Taxpayers are bearing the cost to remediate a man-made rather than a natural problem. “There’s a long history of creeks being rerouted for convenience,” Renfro told the Austin Monitor in a story last June. “And this is just one of those stories.”

Country Club Creek West, Renfro told the Austin Monitor, was dug in 1976 to channel water out of the floodplain so a developer could build apartments on the Colorado River. The supposedly more direct channel to the river actually made the creek a more destructive erosion tool, Renfro said.

“It’s kind of like having a hose in a sandbox,” she said. “Over time, the creek just had to find its own path to the river.”

The city is hoping $13 million and some different engineering will fix something that hasn’t been fully addressed for 42 years.

“Doing nothing is not an option here,” Renfro told the Austin Monitor. “This is not a problem that is going to solve itself.”

Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].

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