If you find yourself walking on Red River near 12th Street downtown, stop for second. Glance toward the state Capitol and enjoy a view that cost the city millions. This is the site of the biggest snag in Austin’s ambitious plan to harness the flood waters of Waller Creek. But now, after nearly 20 year of work, the project may be close to complete.
The Waller Creek flood control project is a $163 million investment to reshape Austin by lifting 28 acres of prime downtown real estate out of a floodplain. It aims to do that by channeling stormwater from the creek into a massive underground tunnel where it can flow safely into Lady Bird Lake.
But the project has been plagued by setbacks and cost overruns. Most famously at that spot on 12th and Red River, the inlet facility that takes in water was found to block a legally protected view of the Capitol. The facility had to be re-engineered, costing the city millions.
That was a low point. But since then “the team has come together,” says Ramesh Swaminathan, project operations maintenance manager.
“We are kind of at a point where we are ready,” he says. “We want to put all these things in and try testing it out.”
By “things,” he means the equipment, the pumps, filters and debris-removing claws that are necessary to realize the plan.
“You get caught up in the sausage-making,” he says, “but sometimes you’ve got to step back and say, 'Wow, this is so cool what we’re doing.'”
That’s because of what Swaminathan refers to as the “adjacencies,” though really, they are anything but.
From the state Capitol to Lady Bird Lake, billions of dollars of private development is riding on the success of the project, as is a massive multimillion dollar redevelopment of Austin’s public spaces. The expected increase in downtown tax revenue is also being eyed hungrily by city officials to answer problems as diverse as homelessness to traffic on I-35.
It’s a lot to put on one little creek – or city engineers for that matter.
“A lot of the pressure that comes off is a bigger project that’s coming, and they all want to get stuff done,” says Swaminathan. “And all along the way we still need to maintain flood protections. I mean, if you can’t do that you can’t do anything else.”
Two other water inlets on Fourth and Eighth streets that were supposed to be complete have also fallen behind schedule. Engineers say that’s because of damage from storms last year.
But the delays haven’t held back private development.
“We’ve already seen numerous development come and get permits and you’re seeing project already underway because of the benefits of the floodplain reduction,” says Jorge Morales, assistant director of Austin’s Public Works Department.
I met Morales at the end of the project, where the tunnel will empty water into Lady Bird Lake. This section is technically complete. But on that morning, people at a nearby café stared as contractors used a crane to hoist equipment and people in and out of the massive hole in the ground, something Morales called routine contract work.
He says the full project should be finished by the end of this year. After that, the city will submit paperwork to FEMA to request that the flood plain be officially redesignated. Officials are confident that will happen.