Rusting City of Austin pipe creates sinkhole across three yards in south Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — With each rainfall, Michael Sanford’s backyard disappears.

Erosion in Michael Sanford's backyard exposes the City of Austin's storm drainage pipe (Photo by Michael Sanford)
Erosion in Michael Sanford’s backyard exposes the City of Austin’s storm drainage pipe (Photo by Michael Sanford)

“When you see it, it’s like ‘oh my gosh, what’s going on here?’” he said.

A sinkhole has formed around a City of Austin storm drainage pipe, which runs beneath the backyards of several homes in the Villages of Shady Hollow subdivision in south Austin. So far, the sinkhole has affected three properties. In Sanford’s yard, it has grown to more than 11 feet wide.

“This was about two feet wide a week ago,” he showed us as we stood against his fence. “You can see how much wider its gotten.”

While the situation has become much worse due to recent rainfall, neighbors said they’ve been sounding alarms to the city about erosion issues for nearly a year.

They said the tipping point came last June, when Josie Palacio’s long-haired chihuahua fell into a section of the sinkhole, which was then smaller and butted up against another neighbor’s property.

Fearing something even more dangerous and catastrophic, Palacios emailed the city about the erosion. While she said city staff promised her engineers would come out last year, no one did. A response from the city to Palacios in December said an inspection “may not be necessary considering inlets are not breaching.”

Palacios said her long-haired Chihuahua "Belle" died about two weeks after falling in the sinkhole. She said the little dog was older and doesn't believe the incident was the cause of Belle's death (Photo: Josie Palacios)
Palacios said her long-haired Chihuahua “Belle” died about two weeks after falling in the sinkhole. She said the little dog was older and doesn’t believe the incident was the cause of Belle’s death (Photo: Josie Palacios)

Neighbors searched for hours until they found the little dog, named “Belle.”

“She was very traumatized,” said Palacios. “But the good of that is, that’s when it made me say, ‘this is my catalyst to do something.’”

“A very high priority”

Top officials at the city’s Watershed Protection Department Thursday acknowledged the growing sinkhole is a “dangerous” situation. Assistant Director Jose Guerrero and other staff visited the neighborhood Wednesday and put up orange fencing around where the ground is caving in.

We asked Guerrero why a city response has taken this long. He said it simply wasn’t as high a priority last year, adding priorities can change overnight based on storms that have fallen.

“Originally when this came in, we prioritized it at maybe a lower level,” Guerrero told us in a Zoom call, adding it has progressed to a “very high-priority situation now.”

Before we spoke with Guerrero, neighbors had been sending us pictures of the rusted pipe. Guerrero confirmed the galvanized steel pipe is old and has rusted through.

Guerrero also said it’s not best practice to use galvanized steel these days but rather concrete or something else more durable. He said he was working to learn the circumstances of when this specific drainage pipe was built.

A small fraction of Austin Watershed Protection's storm drain system is made up of galvanized metal pipes. Assistant Director Jose Guerrero said this particular pipe had rusted through and is at the end of its life (Photo by Michael Sanford)
A small fraction of Austin Watershed Protection’s storm drain system is made up of galvanized metal pipes. Assistant Director Jose Guerrero said this particular pipe had rusted through and is at the end of its life (Photo by Michael Sanford)

“We would prefer to put in reinforced concrete, as that has the most longevity,” said Guerrero.

On Thursday afternoon, shortly after our interview with Sanford, he said he received an email from a staff member that the city planned to take action.

“We know that this is a critical situation and are taking the necessary steps to remedy the problem, for both the short and long term,” read the email from Kathy Rock of Watershed Protection’s Field Operations Division. “We did meet this morning with a team of staff members who review and assess projects like this. Work assignments have been made and once I receive more detail and a specific timeline, I will get back to you.”

Guerrero said the next step is to replace the pipe, but he could not yet provide a timeline for when that would happen. He did say the city is trying to get permission from an adjacent property owner to work through that person’s land.

Guerrero added while the work could involve up to 10 or 15 homes, the department will start working at the three most affected homes. That’s right at the heart of Sanford’s backyard. The homeowner told KXAN time for repairs is of the essence.

“What if a kid, a pet is walking somewhere along that pipeline that looks safe, and that ground gives way?” he asked. “You’re going to fall down in that pipe, and it’s going to be tragic.”

Austin’s Watershed Protection Department said it has more than 10 miles of galvanized metal pipe in the city, which is less than 1% of its storm drain system. Our investigative team is working to learn about this aging infrastructure citywide and will continue to provide updates.

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This post originally appeared on KXAN Austin

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