‘It made me furious’: Developer pumping thousands of gallons of groundwater into south Austin street

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Melissa France, sales manager of Urban Motorsports, says many of her customers are new to riding electric scooters. But she fears someone will get hurt riding on the stretch of Hether Street near South Lamar Boulevard, where Urban Motorsports is located.

“People are just learning how to ride, they have to pull out of our shop and within three feet, they contact loose gravel,” said France.

The street is covered in potholes and is often under repair because a neighboring development at 2010 South Lamar Boulevard is pumping excess groundwater from its underground parking garage.

“Two people I know of, one being our mechanic, has spilled here,” said France. “I’m afraid someone is going to spill and fly right into Lamar.”

Gallons of groundwater flow under the sidewalk from the underground parking garage of a South Lamar building (KXAN/Frank Martinez)

The City of Austin says the groundwater was disturbed during construction of the commercial office building, owned and developed by Sackman Enterprises. No one appears to have moved in yet, but the e-cigarette company JUUL was expected to be a tenant.

“Pre-construction testing, which occurred during drier conditions, did not expose any concerns,” said a city spokesperson on the potential for flooding at the property.

The city tells KXAN it allowed the owner to install a dewatering system that captures the excess parking garage water and pumps it under the sidewalk, out from the curb and into the street. It’s one of several solutions the owner has tried to re-route the water over the last couple of years, but neighbors say the sheer amount of water has still been problematic.

Last month, a top official in the city’s Watershed Protection Department told neighbors the water was flowing out at an estimated 50 gallons per minute, 15 minutes per hour. If you do the math, that’s 18,000 gallons a day, or over a half-million gallons of water a month.

We stopped by several times in the last six weeks to see for ourselves. Just about every hour, the pump turns on, flooding the street. The street remains wet until the pump turns on again. The cycle repeats.

A closer look at where the groundwater is being pumped out (KXAN Photo/Kevin Clark).

When Austin’s Public Works Department covered the potholes with steel plates last month, the city says it was one of the 25 times the department came out to fix the road since the beginning of 2020.

“Our taxpayers are paying for the crews and the materials, when they really need to go to the root of the problem and find a solution,” said France.

“They haven’t really addressed the solution”

According to Austin’s Development Services Department, the city allowed Hether Street as an acceptable discharge location when it approved the building’s site plan, so the flow of groundwater isn’t a code violation.

A city spokesperson tells us staff have been working with Sackman on identifying solutions to address the pooling water in the street until “a permanent solution is in place.”

“The timeline and cost are yet to be determined, but we are actively coordinating with the property owner,” said the spokesperson.

What a permanent solution would look like isn’t clear.

On July 23, an assistant director in the City’s Development Services Department laid out two possible solutions in an email to the Zilker Neighborhood Association: resubmitting plans to propose channeling water into the existing wastewater system on Hether Street; or rerouting it to the wastewater drainage system on South Lamar. 

Even if the city does build a new storm water system, the property owner may not bear the financial burden of connecting to it.

“The City cannot expect the owner to front the cost when they are not asking the City for any development approval,” Director of the City’s Development Services Department Denise Lucas said. “The City has already issued a permit to the owner and there is no mechanism to enforce compliance.”

She added: “For these reasons, the City is going to have to bear any costs needed to address the groundwater discharge into the street.”

After several weeks of calling and emailing Sackman Enterprises, we reached the company’s director of development on the phone. When we asked about the groundwater situation, he told us: “I’m not in a position to comment. I apologize. Have a good day.”

The Zilker Neighborhood Association has been chronicling the developments of the groundwater discharge issue here.

France tells KXAN she was most upset seeing the gallons of water flowing from under the building during February’s winter storm. She says she was without water for five days.

“It made me furious that half of the Austinites did not have water at their homes,” said France. “This is pouring out in the street, tons of gallons at a time.”

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Austin-Travis County

More Investigations

More Investigations

Tracking the Coronavirus

Coronavirus Cases Tracker

Latest Central Texas COVID-19 Cases

Trending Stories

Don't Miss