AUSTIN (KXAN) — Since electric scooters popped up on the streets of Austin in 2018, they’ve been spotted all around town, including in the city’s waterways.
Last February, a number of scooters were found submerged in Lady Bird Lake. Local anglers Matt Mellor and Teddy Hall were out fishing when they noticed the scooters, from various companies, in the water.
City officials told KXAN Thursday they now know more than 300 electric scooters were pulled from waterways since 2018.
“Scooters serve a valuable mobility purpose, and they belong on the streets where people can use them, not in the creeks where they’re not helping anybody,” said City Council Member Paige Ellis.
She added, “They also have batteries that are being recharged, and so that battery leakage is something that is very damaging to our environment.”
Council approves Clean Creeks and Lakes resolution
At Thursday’s Austin City Council meeting, the District 8 Council Member brought forward a resolution that directs City Manager Spencer Cronk to put together a study with recommendations to improve the city’s bodies of water.
The study could cost $500,000.
Ellis said, for now, Cronk is expected to come up with easier-to-achieve solutions by next month and explore other options that can be done in the next budget cycle.
The resolution asks the city manager to look into illegally-dumped scooters and litter, and how it impacts the city’s waterways’ ecological health and safety.
The last Watershed Protection Master Plan came out in 2016, and Ellis hopes the city will revisit and update the plan. She said the goal of the initiative is to work with various city departments to come up with a solution, including Watershed Protection, Parks and Recreation and Resource Recovery.
Ellis added, another issue is the city’s plastic bag ban ordinance no longer being enforced. The Texas Supreme Court overturned that ordinance in 2018 allowing plastic bags to return in stores. Ellis believes this move adds to litter in the city’s waterways.
“It’s very bad for the environment and we want to get everyone teaming up to really find a solution,” Ellis said.
Fishing scooters out of Lady Bird Lake
Right now, enforcement of the illegally dumped scooters works like this. Someone has to spot the scooter in the water and report it. The city then notifies the company, which then has 24 hours to get the scooter out.
“I know at least one of the companies has spent over $100,000 themselves on divers, on people on kayaks to go get these devices,” said Robert Spillar, Director of Austin’s Transportation Department.
He said, the companies have been responsive. “Each of these devices are $1,000 devices. They’re expensive devices. They’re not making money to them if they’re not in service, so they want to get them out as fast as possible.”
Last year, the city implemented a “geofencing” solution to try to minimize the number of scooters being dumped into water.
“Now scooter riders are no longer able to end their rides on bridges, so the scooters are no longer parked on bridges,” explained Robert Hebrink, Program Manager at the Watershed Protection Department. “We’ve seen that help tremendously with the number of reports of scooters in the waterways, so that’s one step of forward progress.”
He said Watershed is also trying out new technology.
“Submersible drones, sonar technology,” Hebrink told KXAN. “We’re just starting to take action in this new direction to be more proactive and get a feeling for the scope of the problem that has gone unidentified.”
Watershed Protection Department officials said litter and scooters are considered a pollutant discharge to a waterway, a Class C misdemeanor. This could result in a fine up to $2,063 per violation, per day, issued by the Austin Municipal Court.
If you see a scooter in an Austin waterway, you are asked to call Austin WPD’s 24-hour hotline at (512) 974-2550.
Austin is not the only city dealing with this issue. In Portland, Ore., divers found 20 e-scooters in the Willamette River, a major tributary of the Columbia River.