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Waller Creek Tunnel Will Work Despite Construction Flaws, City Says

Gabriel C. Pérez
Construction last year at the mouth of Waller Creek into Lady Bird Lake.

In a letter to construction contractor S.J. Louis, the City of Austin calls the Waller Creek tunnel “diminished” and “defective,” and writes that shoddy construction has reduced “the primary purpose of the tunnel, flood protection.”

That might lead you to think the tunnel won’t serve its purpose to divert floodwaters away from downtown Austin. But in interviews Friday, city staff said the tunnel should work fine.

Despite the tone of the letter, in which the city demands $22 million back from the contractor – “the City will never be made whole,” one particularly dramatic line reads ­– staff at Austin’s Watershed Protection Department remain confident that the tunnel will still lift 28 acres of downtown real estate out of the 100-year floodplain.

A 100-year flood is a flood so strong there is only a 1 percent chance of it happening in a given year.

“Based on the current hundred-year design flow, yes, the tunnel should handle all that flow and keep the floodplain within the banks of the creek,” said Karl McArthur with the Watershed Protection Department.

But, McArthur said, construction flaws will limit the tunnel's ability to handle floods even stronger than 100-year events.

Over the past several years, Austin has spent more than $160 million on the drainage tunnel, which stretches underground from Waterloo Park to Lady Bird Lake. It justified the expense by pointing to the billions in development that could happen once the risk of flooding is removed.

But the project has been beset by cost overruns and mistakes, including one component that blocked a view corridor of the state Capitol and had to be re-built, costing the city millions.

Last summer city staff suggested those problems were behind them. They told KUT the project would be successfully completed by the end of 2017 and made no mention of the conflict that had already erupted between the city and S.J. Louis.

“There was no intent to be misleading,” Richard Mendoza, director of Austin’s Public Works Department said when asked why the city had not made problems with the tunnel public. He suggested that the city and the contractor thought they could resolve the problems between themselves.  

“What I can say to the public is the tunnel is not going to fail. It’s not going to collapse. It’s working. It has been working," he said. "But it’s not the tunnel we paid for at the beginning."

Once the city completes work on the tunnel and on a new floodplain study, it will submit a request to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to update the floodplain maps of downtown Austin. The city expects those new maps will reflect the reduced flood risk brought by the tunnel.  

McArthur confirmed that some buildings already have been planned – and even built – in anticipation of that reduced flood risk.

Correction: An earlier version of this post said the primary purpose of the tunnel was "food" protection, instead of "flood" protection. 

Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
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