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LCRA board approves SAWS study

Friday, August 22, 2003 by

Engineering, environmental

The Lower Colorado River Authority’s board of directors approved a seven-year study plan this week for the billion-dollar water agreement with the San Antonio Water System.

Negotiations between the LCRA and SAWS have been ongoing for the last four years. Preparation of the study plan’s scope—the study of the study plan, so to speak—has already taken two years. Now it’s up to the SAWS’ board of directors to agree to the scope of the plan—$43 million worth of environmental and engineering studies.

“From our perspective, the first thing we need to know is that no harm would be done in our Colorado basin,” said LCRA spokesman Robert Cullick . “When we first undertook this project three years ago, there was some question in the environmental community about whether we were serious about truly delving into the environmental issues. I think if you look at this study—the considerable time and depth and price tag—you know that we are very serious about protecting the environment.”

Under the interagency agreement, SAWS picks up the cost of the study plan, plus the construction of a 170-mile pipeline from the Colorado River to Bexar County. The goal is to provide an additional 150,000-acre-feet of water to Bexar County each year, roughly equivalent to the amount of water the City of Austin uses annually.

The project does provide some benefits to the region served by the LCRA, said Paul Thornhill, deputy manager of water services and environmental at the LCRA. New infrastructure would provide additional storage for the LCRA, creating more water for agricultural use and higher lake levels for the Highland Lakes.

That’s attractive to the LCRA because of the flow guaranteed to municipal and industrial uses upstream. More demand upstream means less flow downstream, a situation that presents a problem to rice farmers in Matagorda County. The LCRA-SAWS agreement provides that the LCRA will build and own $250 million in infrastructure in Matagorda County. SAWS has agreed to pay for that construction out of fees.

The need is critical for San Antonio, which must decrease its dependence on pumping from the Edwards Aquifer. SAWS has estimated that the region will need an additional 350,000-acre-feet of water per year to meet long-term needs. The cost of the LCRA deal, which will be borne solely by SAWS, provides only half of the water the region needs.

The completion of the contract is dependent on the SAWS board. Because SAWS is bearing the cost, the LCRA has agreed to continue to work with SAWS as long as its board considers the project to be viable, Thornhill said. The SAWS board will have 90 days to agree or not to the scope of the study plan once it is presented to the board.

Approval of the study plan is only one milestone in a lengthy agreement. The studies of the estuary—making sure the Colorado River and Matagorda Bay’ s ecosystems and economy are protected—will take almost seven years. By the third or fourth year of the study, the two sides will begin to apply for permits and grants, Thornhill said.

At the end of the study period, SAWS will assess all aspects of the project and decide whether to proceed with construction. Thornhill said it would be 16 years before SAWS would see water from the contract. The term of the contract is 80 years.

Finance committee approves small changes

The City Council Audit and Finance Committee met Thursday to consider a list of proposed changes to the Council’s financial policies. Most of those changes related to policies for Austin Energy, including one recommendation to set up a new fund to help cover the costs of decommissioning the Holly Power Plant.

The electric utility has already started saving money for decommissioning the South Texas Nuclear Project. Outside auditors hired by the city suggested a similar fund for more traditional power plants like the Holly plant. The suggested policy would allow the Council to begin setting aside money at least four years before a non-nuclear plant actually closes. Austin Energy has set 2009 as the target date for closing the Holly Plant. The amount devoted to the fund would be based on a study of the costs associated with decommissioning the plant.

“We recently had the experience of Seaholm,” said Council Member Betty Dunkerley. “It took about $15 million to decommission that facility and it took two or three years to do that . . . You don’t want to have that kind of cost hit your operating budget all in one year. The safest thing to do is plan ahead and put a certain amount aside each year.”

The committee voted to recommend that policy to the full Council, along with several others. Under the new policy, Austin Energy’s Debt Management Fund would be renamed the Strategic Reserve Fund. That fund would include 120 days of operating cash, plus money in a sub-account to be known as the Competitive Reserve. The utility is required to have at least 60 days of operating cash in reserve. The Competitive Reserve could be used to pay for capital expenditures instead of issuing debt, reducing existing debt, acquiring new technology, or rate reductions. Changing the name from Debt Management Fund to Strategic Reserve Fund, said Mayor Will Wynn, would not be a major change. “I read this as it was always the intent of being able to be as flexible and strategic with that fund as possible and practical,” he said. “It seems to me that what we’re doing here, in a more appropriate way, is identifying and clarifying what the fund can be used for.” A final decision on all of the proposed policy changes will be up to the full City Council.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

American seeks to cut expenses at ABIA . . . Jim Smith, Executive Director of the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, has notified the City Council that American Airlines is trying to reduce expenses by allowing the current space lease to expire and negotiating a new lease. Currently, American has six gates at the airport and proposes to relinquish two of them. That would cost the city about $720,000 in revenue, according to Smith, who said he did not want to discuss the details of the negotiations. However, he did explain that the airline has a five-year contract that will expire on September 30. If American took no action to renegotiate, he said, the contract would automatically renew for an additional five years. Like other airlines, American is seeking ways to lower its operating costs, he said, but it is not proposing to cut any of its current Austin flights . . . Wild flight of Central Texas now showing . . . The airport has opened its newest art exhibit with John Ingram’s photos of birds, butterflies and dragonflies in their native habitat, including the Zilker Park Botanical Gardens, Hornsby Bend, the Balcones Canyonlands and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Ingram, an Austin artist, says, “One of the exciting challenges is to capture the beauty of flight of these amazing creatures . . . Fire station to open . . . Officials from the Austin Fire Department and Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services will host an open house and dedication of Fire Station 40/EMS Station 29 from 10am-Noon Saturday. The new joint-use facility is located at 12711 Harrisglen Drive, approximately one mile east of I-35 off Parmer Lane . . . Attorney changes firms . . . David Hartman has left Graves Dougherty Hearon & Moody to join Smith, Robertson, Elliott & Glen . . . Dean stumping in Texas Monday . . . Presidential candidate Howard Dean will visit Austin as part of his Sleepless Summer Tour on Monday. The former governor of Vermont is hosting a fundraiser at the Ruta Maya Coffee House, 3601 S. Congress, beginning at 5pm. Buses will leave Ruta Maya at 7pm to take Dean, his staff and supporters to San Antonio, where a rally is scheduled for 7:30-10pm at La Villita. Former Rep. Glenn Maxey is the Texas State Organizer for Dean. For more information, contact him at 443-2004 or . . . Cleaner fuel here . . . Austin’s Early Action Compact with surrounding counties to promote clean air won praise from state officials at an announcement on Thursday from the company that provides most of the gasoline in central Texas. Flint Hills Resources LP owns a refinery in Corpus Christi that produces most of the gasoline sold under different brand names in Austin. It’s now producing a cleaner-burning fuel, reducing the amount of “volatile organic compounds” in automobile exhaust that contribute to ozone pollution. The Early Action Compact, said TCEQ Chairman Robert Huston, was an important factor in making that happen. “It’s a very important undertaking,” he said. “It allows a lot more flexibility at the local level to craft a plan that works for this area.”

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