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City settling with Travis County MUD over wastewater treatment standards

Monday, January 31, 2000 by

MUD will provide better treatment in return for variance on holding pond

The City of Austin appears ready to settle its differences with Travis County Municipal Utility District No. 4 over TCMUD 4's application to double the capacity of its sewage treatment facilities from 250,000 gallons per day (GPD) to 500,000 GPD. TCMUD 4 disposes of treated effluent by spraying it on the Fazio and Crenshaw golf courses at Barton Creek Country Club. TCMUD 4 also treats and disposes of sewage from the Lost Creek MUD. TCMUD 4 had applied to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission to amend its permit, the city had intervened, and the contested matter is pending before the State Office of Administrative Hearings.

Last Thursday, attorney Kenneth Ramirez of Bracewell & Patterson LLP in Austin touted the proposed settlement to the City Council. "My major point would be we believe this is a good settlement," Ramirez said. "We are obtaining from TCMUD 4 improvement in their wastewater treatment plant and the way they irrigate their effluent that we think is a vast improvement for the environment and Barton Creek. The second reason this is a worthy settlement is because it achieves environmental improvements through settlement we could not have gotten even if we prevailed at the hearings."

Nancy McClintock, environmental resources manager in the Watershed Protection Department, also recommended the settlement. Charts indicated TCMUD 4's application would have resulted in no modifications to the existing treatment plant, no enhancement to the new treatment plant, and less stringent standards of treatment. The settlement will result in modifications to the existing plant to produce cleaner effluent, including limits on nitrogen, and agreement to improve irrigation practices. TCMUD 4 will spray the least treated effluent in the least sensitive areas. When the new wastewater treatment plant with higher standards of treatment becomes operational, the old plant will be upgraded and put on standby and used only when the new plant's capacity is exceeded. At buildout, McClintock said, these changes will result in a total reduction in pollution of 40 percent.

In the give and take of negotiations, the city reduced the amount of monitoring it would accept. "We lobbied heavily for monitoring but when upgrades to the (treatment) plants were put on the table, we had to decide, and upgrades were more desirable," she said. TCMUD 4 will take water samples from three springs, analyze them, and allow city representatives to review but not copy the results of these analyses. The city acknowledges that the results of the sampling–which is not required by the permit or environmental laws–are privileged and excepted from public disclosure. McClintock said this arrangement would allow the city to understand the impact of the irrigation.

Ramirez said the settlement requires that when TCMUD 4 has lived up to its end of the deal, the city staff will be allowed to grant a cut-and-fill variance for a new effluent holding pond needed for the new wastewater treatment plant. The holding pond would have a capacity of 101 acre-feet. TCMUD 4 still has to file a site plan and go through the usual administrative proceedings. In addition, the contested case hearings would be held in abeyance until Aug. 1, in case TCMUD 4 does not get its variance to build the holding ponds.

The Save Our Springs Alliance was also an intervenor in TCMUD 4's permit application, McClintock said, and the group is likely to acquiesce to the settlement. "They may not sign on the dotted line to the agreement but they probably will not oppose it or go forward with administrative hearings," she said.

The City Council voted 6-0 with Mayor Kirk Watson absent to approve on first and second readings an ordinance adopting a settlement in the matter. Council Member Daryl Slusher moved approval but wanted the third and final reading of the ordinance to be held till Feb. 3, since the council had just received the proposed ordinance in its final form. The matter is posted for action this Thursday in the council meeting that begins at 9 a.m. in Room 304 at City Hall, 124 W. 8th St. The council will reconvene at 1:30 p.m. in the board room of the Lower Colorado River Authority, 3700 Lake Austin Boulevard.

Council Member Bill Spelman asked before the council voted what the likely consequences would be if the council did not accept the settlement but continued to contest TCMUD 4's permit application. "It's hard to tell," Ramirez replied, "but we achieved through settlement what we would have gotten if we'd gone through the hearings and won. It was never our intent to have the permit denied but to have more benefit for the creek."

The council also approved a $36,000 increase in the legal fees for Bracewell & Patterson in this matter, bringing the firm's total legal fees for the contested case hearing to $75,000.

Settlement Agreement Effluent Limitations

Permit Application Submitted

Negotiated Permit Conditions

Existing treatment plant effluent

Modified Existing Treatment Plant Effluent

New Treatment Plant Effluent

Source: City of Austin

Note: BOD is Biochemical Oxygen Demand, TSS is Total Suspended Solids, N is Nitrogen.

City Council to consider public hearing Feb. 10 on electric industry restructuring

Strategic Planning Team's initial assessment indicates a healthy utility

The Strategic Planning Team formed last summer by Austin Energy to assess the impact of electric industry restructuring under Senate Bill 7 has made its initial report and seeks a hearing to gain public comment. This Thursday the City Council will consider setting the public hearing for 6 p.m. Feb. 10.

In a Jan. 4 memo to the mayor, council members and city manager, Austin Energy General Manager Chuck Manning described the comprehensive analysis, which is still underway. Manning was out of town Friday and could not be reached for further comment. Ed Clark, Austin Energy's director of communications and customer service, said, "Our job is to provide information to the City Council–they're the decision-making body. That's the sole purpose of the Strategic Planning Team."

Preliminary findings regarding SB 7 indicate that the City Council's authority to determine whether Austin Energy enters competition is a significant competitive advantage. Distribution rates and stranded costs will also be determined locally. Transmission and distribution of power will remain regulated, and major efforts are underway at the Texas Public Utility Commission to establish the rules.

The Strategic Planning Team found there is significant value in Austin Energy remaining a community owned utility. Austin Energy is considered to be well positioned both financially and operationally, although the "need for public education on electrical restructuring issues is critical."

Austin Energy's current rate structure should be reevaluated as other utilities and new energy providers offer new rate and pricing structures in response to the evolving Texas electric energy market.

Austin Energy should remain an environmental leader in the utility industry by continuing to develop and offer conservation and renewable energy programs. (See In Fact Daily Jan. 13.)

Continued emphasis on improvements in customer service is fundamental to the future success of the utility, and affordable and reliable energy is critical.

These are the findings to date. Once the planning process is completed, Manning wrote, Austin Energy will provide a report and recommendations to the City Council.

To reach these conclusions, the Strategic Planning Team researched the restructuring efforts of other utilities, both nationally and internationally, and reviewed restructuring articles and publications. Team members communicated with executives, managers and colleagues from other community owned utilities and had in-depth discussions with investment bankers, financial advisers and electric utility consultants. They discussed the issues with officials of the Texas Public Utility Commission and Electric Reliability Council of Texas.

On the local level, team members interviewed City Council members, Electric Utility Commission members, Resource Management Commission members, city staff members and key members of the community. They interviewed Austin Energy executives and managers and conducted employee focus groups.

SH 130 hearings set…On Thursday, Feb. 10, the Texas Turnpike Authority (TTA) will hold public hearings on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) simultaneously beginning at 6 p.m. in three locations: Austin at Barbara Jordan Elementary School, 6711 Johnny Morris Road; Round Rock at Stony Point High School at 1801 Bowman Drive; and Seguin at Seguin Coliseum at 810 S. Guadalupe St. The DEIS, maps, drawings and other information are available for public review at TTA's office at 125 E. 11th St. Written comments are due by Feb. 22 and will not be accepted via e-mail. For more information, call Stacey Benningfield at 936-0980… SH 130 alignment hearing…A public hearing will be conducted at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 7, on the alignment of SH 130 by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization's Policy Advisory Committee. The hearing will be held in the Texas Senate Chamber, Room 2E.8, on the 2nd floor of the State Capitol. CAMPO's comments on a preferred alignment will be considered as part of the Texas Turnpike Authority's public involvement process… Hightower alert…We haven't seen the book but we like the title: If the Gods Had Meant Us to Vote, They Would Have Given Us Candidates. It's the latest from progressive populist Jim Hightower, former state agriculture commissioner. He's scheduled to be at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar, at 7 p.m. Feb. 17. For more info, call Betsy Moon at 477-5588… Touch the homeless…A new program from House the Homeless Inc. and the Lauterstein-Conway Massage School will reach out to homeless people with the gift of a foot massage. In a program called Heart and Sole to be launched Feb. 16, massage therapists will soak, cleanse and massage the feet of some of Austin's homeless. Thereafter, the program will repeat on the first and third Wednesday of each month. Recipients will also get new socks and footwear and be asked for a $5 contribution to instill value. For more info, call Richard Troxell at 796-4366.

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