Growth problems in Central Texas present work opportunities for graduates

Shannon Harris

If you want to stay in Central Texas after graduation, consider this: Austin is growing at an unprecedented rate. The population has grown 37.7 percent since 2000. Some estimates state that as many as 110 people move to Austin each day. Because Austin sits on the Balcones Escarpment, part of a fault line running north and south through much of Central Texas, the geography of the city and surrounding areas presents uncommon challenges to that physical growth while at the same time stretching our natural resources. What this means for upcoming graduates from UT is that there is opportunity in the area for young professionals in many disciplines. Some of those opportunities are unique and require creative approaches that will enable many of us to put theory into practice.

For example, when I attended a western Travis County public water utility district meeting recently, many challenges of growth became evident. The training and education we receive at UT could provide meaningful leadership as Central Texas transitions. This area west of Austin needs knowledgeable engineers willing to work on the special problems of waste water treatment plants and water delivery in a geographically diverse and demanding, yet sensitive environment. Parts of this district are situated over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone, an area that supports important groundwater as well as a popular swimming hole, Barton Springs. The karst formations of the aquifer allow pollutants to pass quickly and almost entirely unfiltered to local waterways. One of the area’s wastewater treatment plants was originally built only to serve a subdivision development but is now serving many more customers, including commercial customers. The plant was never intended to operate under these conditions. Failures in infrastructure of this kind could threaten the aquifer.

A new hotel development in the western Travis County area underscores further evidence that creative thinkers with a wide range of skills are needed to handle problems unique to Central Texas. On Sept. 18, a storm dumped more than seven inches of rain in less than 24 hours in the city of Bee Cave. The hotel’s parking garage, which is situated beneath the hotel, filled with drainage water from the site. The water made its way into the city’s storm drains. Unfortunately, this city drain was not designed to handle the additional water, despite the fact that rain events such as this occur frequently in Central Texas, and the storm water ended up in the sewer system. University of Texas graduates trained to use innovative techniques in civil engineering, landscape architecture and architectural engineering will be in demand as these problems begin to surface and require novel approaches.

Finally, Central Texas needs professionals trained to think holistically about infrastructure problems in such a sensitive environment. Luckily, Austin has already made progress toward this goal. In the 1970s, the city’s Watershed Protection Department began to introduce planners into the engineering-dominated field. Since that time, both groups have learned to value lessons taken from each discipline and have created a department that thinks outside the box about how to innovatively solve Austin’s storm water problems.

The fast-growing areas outside of Austin — once small, sleepy communities in the country — need advanced problem-solvers now. University of Texas graduates should pursue opportunities in these cities, bringing with them the enthusiasm, energy and cutting-edge knowledge that we learn in our academic programs which can help solve the area’s burgeoning growth problems.

Harris is an architecture graduate student from Athens.