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Plans for Green WTP derailed

Thursday, June 15, 2006 by

City staff may back away from Green, look toward WTP#4

Although plans to build a new Green Water Treatment Plant had been moving with the speed of a freight train, that train appears to have moved onto a siding. Now it seems possible that the city will turn to Water Treatment Plant #4 as its first option.

Last week, during a discussion of water conservation and plans for expanded production from the Austin Water Utility, staff said they would be asking the City Council to approve an engineering firm to do the preliminary design for the new plant. But the item is not on next week’s preliminary agenda and it did not appear on last night’s Water and Wastewater Commission. Plummer and Associates consultant Steve Coonan made a presentation to the commission similar to the one he gave at last week’s Council meeting on conservation efforts, but it did not include any mention of a specific date for obtaining a contract for preliminary design work.

AWU Director Chris Lippe confirmed to In Fact Daily that the item had been postponed, noting that there had been "a lot of discussion" about Green after last week’s presentation. He declined to elaborate but agreed that the next time the Council might formally consider the matter is at its July 27 meeting. There are no other regular meetings in July.

Next week’s Council agenda is almost as packed as last week’s, which kept members and interested citizens at City Hall until past 3:30am. Council Member Brewster McCracken suggested that the two new Council Members— Sheryl Cole and Mike Martinez—might not want to make a decision on Green at their first meeting.

Downtown developers and Mayor Will Wynn have eyed the current Green, which has served long past its expected lifetime, for redevelopment. At this point, the plant, which is on Town Lake, is only producing 17 million gallons a day.

The Council considered a staff recommendation to move the plant to a site within the undeveloped Guererro Colorado River Park but rejected the idea after a public outcry against using East Austin parkland for the plant. (See In Fact Daily April 27, 28, 2006.) Staff has stressed the need to make a decision soon in order to meet a 2011 date when they believe the water will be needed.

Panel studies Texas environmental flows

An advisory committee appointed by Gov. Rick Perry to focus on the environmental flows issue has landed on two key issues in its preliminary discussion: science and process.

The recommendations are required under Senate Bill 3, which passed during the last regular session. Determining and regulating environmental flows crosses the jurisdiction of three agencies: the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department; the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality; and the Texas Water Development Board. The chairs of all three agencies sit on the Environmental Flows Advisory Committee – a rare chance to see cross-agency collaboration – along with a number of public members.

A meeting at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department this week focused on two-pages of recommendations made by various board members. The first, and probably most important, issue is the science. In an update of a report first released in 2004, science advisory committee chair Robert Brandes reiterated the committee’s conclusion that the state’s measures to both calculate and validate proper instream flows were insufficient, failing to add needed precautions if the state suffered from an extended drought.

What complicates the issue – even if the agencies could land on a formula – is the fact that the calculation of instream flows is intended to be a basin-by-basin issue. What works for Matagorda Bay, and its ecology, is not assumed to work for Galveston Bay, and so forth. The proper balance of use, reuse and conservation is assumed to be a function of the various stakeholders in each particular basin.

Such regulations could have an effect on how much water the City of Austin can take from the Colorado River basin in future years.

The state, however, suffers from severe limits on science know-how. While the proper expertise for calculating and estimating environmental flows might be easily found in Austin, it’s going to be harder to find those people in Lubbock or Abilene, Brandes said. The science advisory committee even has suggested centralizing the science function of the equation, knowing that basin stakeholders may be leery of such compromises. As a representative from the Galveston Bay Foundation pointed out, basin groups are going to have to buy into the science before they sign on to their conclusions.

The other challenge is process. As more than one committee, but particularly TCEQ’s Kathleen Harnett White pointed out, the process as its spelled out under law is cumbersome, at best. Observers say that the complicated combination of agency "sign offs" and approvals on various parts of the process – as written into the statute – bogs down the process, and it’s likely the committee will recommend streamlining the process.

The Environmental Flows Advisory Committee is intended tell the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the house how the process of setting and monitoring environmental flows will actually flow through each agency. For instance, take something as simple as land stewardship to encourage conservation. An incentive program to encourage landowners to improve water use could go through any one of the three agencies that sits on the advisory committee, at one point or another.

Given a list of suggestions made by committee members, White said it was impossible to have a comprehensive discussion without some kind of work session with a flow chart and diagrams to discuss which agency would handle what part of the process. It is White’s suggestion that the environmental flow regime recommendations go through the TCEQ.

The actual recommendations of each member were presented to the board. Some points are as "simple" as setting guidelines for each basin to use in making recommendations for environmental flow standards and clarifying basins and sub-basin groups. Studies, which are intended to the burden of the agencies, have yet to be funded. The group also has to set procedures and standards for the Texas Water Trust, which is intended to hold water rights that are voluntarily donated as a environmental preservation effort. The group is insistent the donations be voluntary but would prefer incentives to do it.

The committee continues to meet, with the intention of providing guidelines for the state’s Big Three by the end of the year. Community members at the meeting encouraged the group to keep the process, one that has been followed with keen interest by both environmentalists and those who deal in water issues, as transparent as possible.

Talks continue on Downtown/Mueller streetcar system

The dialogue continues between Capital Metro and community groups that are interested in a proposed streetcar circulator system around the Mueller redevelopment project and between Mueller and the downtown/University of Texas/Capitol complex.

Last night Lucy Galbraith, co-director of Capital Metro’s Future Connections program, met with the Transportation subcommittee of the Downtown Commission to discuss the proposed path for streetcars, as well as the specific concerns of downtown stakeholders. Those concerns include the paths and platforms down Congress Avenue, the combination of transportation options at various stations and the frequency of downtown service.

The streetcar proposal has a route, but Galbraith calls it the "crayon line on the map" stage because it has yet to go through serious traffic forecasts. City officials, University of Texas regents and the Capital Metro board – not to mention the voters – have to sign off on the proposal before the serious work begins on the project. The proposal could go to the Capital Metro board for approval in July, but that may be delayed given that it will be one of the first meetings of the two representatives from the City of Austin.

The streetcar path would pass through Mueller, down Manor Road and across Dean Keeton by the UT Law School before turning south down San Jacinto Street through the UT campus. The route would continue down San Jacinto past the Capitol, then jog over to pick up Congress Avenue down to Fourth Street. At Fourth Street, the path would turn west past the Seaholm site and jog up Bowie.

Connectors are important to downtown stakeholders. For now, the connection between commuter rail and Mueller is tentative, either a shuttle or a streetcar connection, depending on the future plans on 51st Street, Galbraith said. A platform will be placed just south of Mueller at Manor Road and the commuter rail line, so that Mueller residents can hop the streetcar and take it into downtown.

Galbraith also notes that many may choose to hop off of commuter rail and onto the streetcar, which goes directly into downtown, rather than continue on the commuter rail line, which crosses through stops in East Austin before it hits Fifth Street. The connection between the end point of commuter rail and the streetcar line on Fourth Street is still tentative, with a couple of blocks still separating the two proposed lines.

Streetcars and the Capital Metro commuter rail line both end up with Seaholm at the proposed multi-modal rail station. The proposed Austin-San Antonio commuter rail line – which will run from Georgetown to San Antonio – will also meet at the rail station. Ultimately, Amtrak also would join up at the shared inter-modal transit plaza.

Beth Ann Sprengel, who chairs the subcommittee, says that the inter-modal connections have been a key concern of her group, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. Galbraith also took some time to explain the Congress Avenue configuration – still in the "crayon" stage – that would have the streetcars running in a lane of traffic, along with traffic. Unlike commuter rail, a lane will not be dedicated for the service, Galbraith said.

The Capital Metro board could consider the streetcar proposal – as a voter referendum—as early as next month, with the idea of putting it on the November ballot or possibly a later ballot, if board members decide they want to see success with the proposed commuter rail line before they move on to the next major project. At a cost of $233 million, the streetcar proposal is more than twice the cost of commuter rail.

Galbraith estimated commuter rail would take about four years, from start to finish. She estimated it would take two years for engineering and traffic studies, to be followed by two years of construction. She anticipated, given the 6.5-mile circulation pattern, that the streetcar project would be ramped up in phases, with downtown coming online first, followed by the Seaholm connection and then the Mueller connection to the north.

©2006 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

As times change . . . Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas has been a member of the City Council Audit and Finance Committee, which includes the Mayor and three members of the Council. When Thomas retires next week, there will be an opening on that committee. Council Member Lee Leffingwell has said he wants the slot and he has seniority, so he is likely to take the seat. It is less clear who will take a seat on Capital Metro . . . Late night volunteer opportunities . . . The Planning Commission finished its recommendations for the East Riverside/Oltorf Combined Neighborhood Plan at 1am Wednesday. Then the stalwart panel took up consideration of the Dawson Neighborhood Plan Future Land Use Map. In Fact Daily will have more on these items when we awaken from our nap . . . Seats up . . . The terms of five of the nine members of the Zoning and Platting Commission and four members of the Planning Commission will expire at the end of the month. Some members might be happy to give up the late night meetings. Of course, if the Council makes no decisions on those matters next week, the same members can serve until July 27, the next Council meeting. There is quite a bit of jockeying on such important posts behind the scenes but it never intrudes into the apparent calm of the Council consent agenda . . . Water contracts endorsed . . . The Water and Wastewater Commission gave its endorsement to a contract between the utility and Lewis Contractors, Inc. of Georgetown for work on the Austin Clean Water Program. The project calls for installing new wastewater pipeline near White Rock Drive and Bull Creek Road. The total contract amount will be for $1,595,090. Other contracts endorsed during Wednesday’s meeting include a $4.8 million deal with Excel Construction Services of Austin to replace valves at the Davis Water Treatment Plant and an agreement with Austin HB Residential Properties for the utility to reimburse the developer for the cost of an 18-inch wastewater main for a new development near the intersection of US 290 East and SH 130 . . . Meetings . . . The Austin City Council/AISD Board of Trustees Joint Subcommittee meets at 11am at AISD headquarters, 1111 W. Sixth St . . . The Federally Qualified Health Center Board meets at 5pm in the RBJ Building 15 Waller St. . . . Transportation funding . . . Congressman Lamar Smith has announced $2 million in federal funding for Austin-area transportation projects. The funding was included in the Transportation Appropriations Act of 2006 (H.R. 5576), which passed the US House of Representatives Wednesday. The bill contains $1 million for construction of a park-and-ride bus facility in Oak Hill. The bill also contains $1 million for construction of an I-35 park-and-ride facility. The projects will connect neighborhoods in Oak Hill and far South Austin with downtown. The legislation will be reconciled with the Senate's transportation funding bill before heading to the President's desk for signature. . . . State sued over voting machines . . . Voters, civil rights groups and a statewide candidate filed a petition Wednesday to prevent the State of Texas from using allegedly unreliable electronic voting machines in the November elections. Travis County voter Sonia Santana, the NAACP of Austin, its president, Nelson Linder, and David Van Os, a candidate for attorney general, filed suit asking the court to enjoin the county from using voting machines that do not produce a paper ballot. The Texas Civil Rights Project represents the plaintiffs. "Voters deserve the assurance their voices will be heard," said Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project. "By using machines that provide no permanent record, the state is failing in its constitutional duty to provide the people with an election in which they can trust the results." More than half the states now require their electronic voting machines to print a paper ballot when the voter casts a vote . . . Austin firefighter a certified hottie . . . People Magazine has chosen an Austin firefighter as one of America’s "Hottest Bachelors." Reggie Tait will be featured in the magazine’s next issue, which will be out on Friday, as one of five public safety bachelors in the issue. You can have your picture taken with Reggie between 1:30-3pm Friday at AFD Station #3, 201 W. 30th St.

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