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Official frets as stormwater threatens Austin Bluffs



Jason Bouchard's property is crumbling into a deep, jagged ravine. In fact, rushing stormwater and two natural springs have caused 30 feet of his land along Austin Bluffs Parkway to simply disappear in less than two years.

"Over the last six months, it's really gotten bad," Bouchard says, adding he's lost 10 feet of ground within the past six weeks alone.

Considering the steady progress of the collapse, it's not unreasonable to imagine that Austin Bluffs, which lies only 20 feet from the drop-off, would start to crumble. That's what stormwater engineering manager Ken Sampley fears.

"If we don't do something there, the immediate impact would be [Bouchard's] driveway entrance," Sampley says. "But shortly after that, it would be impacting the eastbound lanes of Austin Bluffs."

Bouchard's problem is Exhibit A for why the city needs dedicated funding for flood control. The Stormwater Enterprise, created in 2005 and funded by fees imposed in January 2007, handled improvements to drainage areas like the channel that runs past Bouchard's. But it's being dismantled after voters told the city last November to phase it out.

"People need to realize this stuff needs to be done," Bouchard says.

When he bought the office building at 3215 Austin Bluffs Pkwy. in August 2008, a murky stream trickled innocuously behind the building, continuing downhill a couple miles to Union Boulevard, where it meets Templeton Gap Floodway. But in the past year or so, rushing water has brought boulders, chunks of concrete and tree limbs to the channel, making high water a potential disaster. Further complicating matters: Two natural springs undermine the cliff that supports the western edge of Bouchard's land.

Bouchard says he didn't know about the springs until the cliff caved in and revealed them. But he did know about the drainage channel, and before he bought the building, he says, he asked Stormwater what was planned for it.

"They got me on the list to get it fixed," he says. "They were using the money to fix the problems. Now the voters put a stop to it."

Since stormwater fees were imposed, the city has spent $24 million on projects and $11 million on maintenance. This year, the city will finish four projects already underway when the enterprise was scuttled — one on Cottonwood Creek and three on Sand Creek — costing about $2.3 million.

It's unclear how much money is available this year. A recent round of collection letters and overdue notices to delinquent accountholders rustled up $400,000, and on April 29, the city turned the remaining $1.8 million in bills over to a collection agency. As its fee, the agency will keep 30 percent of what it collects.

Next year, Sampley says, the city will need a minimum of $1.7 million for state and federal permits to conform with the law and $1.4 million for maintenance. Where the Austin Bluffs project fits in isn't clear, but Sampley agrees with Bouchard that it's a priority.

"We have several poster children. This is one of them," Sampley says, adding, "Over the last year, it's become a critical situation."

He says the city has hired a geotechnical engineer to study the ditch and how repairs could be done in phases. But the city's stormwater division lacks money, and Sampley says any part of a solution would exceed $100,000.

He could — and might — appeal to City Council for additional funds from the general fund, given the advancing cave-in. Bouchard isn't hopeful, though, saying he's already contacted Council members.

"They say, 'We have no money.'"

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