The City of Austin's Watershed Protection Department protects lives, property, and the environment by reducing the impact of flooding, erosion, and water pollution. The department was officially created in 1991, but efforts to protect Austin’s creeks, springs, and the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer began decades earlier. Community members often played a key role by pushing the City to make environmental protection a priority. Scroll down to learn about these early efforts and see the progression toward more institutionalized action over time. Scroll further to view a series of short videos that provide a glimpse into some of the projects making a difference in our community.
In the 1970s, little protection exists for Austin's creeks and springs. Dismay over a developer's destruction of Harper's Creek in South Austin in 1973 leads to the drafting of the city's first waterway ordinance.* The City's first and newly-instituted environmental office, the Office of Environmental Resource Management, writes the ordinance requiring that new development prevent unnecessary destruction of the natural characteristics of (city) waterways.
The Austin Creeks project, Austin's Bicentennial Gift to the Nation, is created as "a bold plan to preserve, restore, and enhance the creeks and waterways of Austin." The plan seeks to connect parks around the city with pedestrian and bicycle trails, while also addressing concerns related to flooding, pollution, erosion, and habitat loss. This is a notable collaboration between the City of Austin, City-appointed citizen committees, local environmental groups, and the University of Texas at Austin. The venture is one of the first organized efforts to address watershed protection in Austin.
In the late 1970s, rapid urban growth and developer-friendly policies threaten irreparable damage to Barton Creek. Pressure from environmental groups and community members leads to the creation of a task force to draft the Barton Creek Watershed Ordinance. Heavily influenced by members of the Save Barton Creek Association, it is the City’s first ordinance to explicitly take water quality of the area’s creeks, river, aquifer, and springs into consideration. This legislation lays the groundwork for all subsequent work to protect the surrounding watershed.
The City Council under Mayor Cooksey passes the Comprehensive Watershed Ordinance. This places restrictions on development to protect environmentally sensitive terrain and reduce water pollution; however, the City grants exemptions to 87% of the requests made to circumvent the new rule.
The City of Austin creates the Watershed Protection Department (originally called the Drainage Utility). The Watershed Protection Department works to protect lives, property, and the environment of our community by reducing the impact of flooding, erosion, and water pollution.
Austin community members assert their green identity, endorsing the strictest water quality ordinance ever by a 2-to-1 margin. Voters also approve bonds to fund the creation of a Barton Creek Wilderness Park (now known as the Barton Creek Greenbelt) and to begin purchasing privately-held land to create the Balcones Canyonland Preserve for the protection of endangered species.
Austin voters approve 65 million dollars in bonds to acquire Water Quality Protection Lands, which protect thousands of acres of land outside of Austin's regulatory jurisdiction. Managed by the local water utility, Austin Water, these lands protect more than 34,000 acres from development, helping to reduce water pollution downstream in Austin.
The City approves the Watershed Protection Master Plan, coordinating previously disconnected efforts between drainage engineering and environmental protection. For the first time, the department has a clear framework to prioritize actions to meet its goals.
City Council passes the Watershed Protection Ordinance to overhaul Austin's environmental and drainage code. Changes include requiring better stream buffers and improved floodplain protections, plus new provisions to combat erosion hazards.
The Watershed Protection Department begins a comprehensive update of its master plan, now known as Rain to River: A Strategic Plan to Protect Austin’s Creeks and Communities. The Rain to River plan will guide the department's work for the next decade. In 2022, the department launched an engagement process to solicit input from the community. The plan, slated for adoption in 2024, will set goals and prioritize the department's work to tackle urgent challenges, including climate change and racial inequities.
These videos communicate the mission of the department and its work in the field.
Learn how rain recharges the Edwards Aquifer as it flows underground through caves, sinkholes, and fractures.
Experts identify threats to our groundwater and how we can work together to minimize those threats.
The water that reaches Barton Springs flows underground from many sources, some of which are miles away from the iconic swimming hole.
Scientists first discovered the endangered Barton Springs Salamander (recently discovered elsewhere in the Central Texas region!) and the Austin Blind Salamander in Barton Springs Pool. These rare creatures are fascinating unto themselves, but their dependence on clean water to survive brings to light how water quality impacts the delicate balance of life in aquatic ecosystems.
Allowing native and adapted trees and plants to grow along creeks protects our water quality. The Watershed Protection Department works with local nonprofit groups to restore creekside vegetation in areas that were previously mowed.
Educator Jessica Wilson explains how planting a rain garden in your yard captures and holds storm water, helping to reduce area erosion and filter out pollutants.
Robust stands of vegetation in the shallow waters of Lake Austin combat unhealthy nutrient buildup and algae overgrowth. The Watershed Protection Department builds and maintains cages along the shoreline to protect these beneficial plants from being eaten by turtles, fowl, and fish.
Updating the old storm drain system with higher-capacity components plays a crucial role in managing flood events in Austin's urban core.
This video is for kids! See how storm water flowing over paved surfaces carries pollutants to our creeks, while plants and soil help filter out pollutants before they reach our creeks.
One pile of dog poop left behind might not seem like a big deal, but with hundreds of thousands of dogs in Austin, this poo-llution adds up fast! Disposing of pet waste properly helps keep Austin's creeks and lakes clean and healthy. (Dog waste numbers noted in this video are from the 2010 census. Information will be updated soon to reflect the growth in Austin's dog population.)
An Austin man's near-death experience spotlights the importance of following flood safety protocol. Get important information about flood safety and preparedness at atxfloodsafety.com.
Trash tossed on the streets ends up in our creeks, lakes, and river. Put waste in the right place!
Click here to learn about current projects to address flooding and erosion problems around Austin.
The Watershed Protection Department’s youth education program provides school outreach, field trips, curriculum, and service learning opportunities.