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Science panel delays decision on WTP4

Tuesday, August 8, 2006 by

Members of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve Scientific Advisory Committee spent the better part of two hours Monday listening to city staff, led by Chris Lippe of Austin Water Utility and Environmental Conservation Manager Willy Conrad, outline the alternative site evaluation for Water Treatment Plant 4 and the status of current Black-Capped Vireo land. But the panel postponed making a recommendation on the city’s proposal to build the plant on 45 acres of the Cortaña tract near Lake Travis.

Consultant Joe Lessard, a former Austin Assistant City Manager, pointed out that mitigation of any future wastewater plant site – at the headwaters of Bull Creek or on a piece of the nearby Cortaña tract – would have been a foregone conclusion if the city and county had completed the full Balcones Canyonlands Preserve. The preserve – a pristine 30,428 acres set aside for wildlife habitat – exists to serve as a mitigation measure for the development in the area, whether that’s private or city development.

Picking the right site for Water Treatment Plant 4 might be the tree, Lessard told the group, but added that the committee needs to keep its eye on the forest.

"If that land had been put into place, and you had met the permit requirements, this would have been much easier. There wouldn’t have been any question that the mitigation was in place," Lessard said. "That isn’t the case."

The problem, Lessard pointed out, is that the city and county are far from completing the preserve, with no hope of reaching the habitat goals set out in the original permit. Black-Capped Vireo habitat is simply a whole lot harder to create than the city thought, Lessard said. Right now the city has 150 acres of habitat, with a promise to add another 400 acres. That doesn’t come close to what is necessary, Lessard said.

The Little Barton Creek tract, at 928 acres, which the city promises to designate as part of the preserve, could add to the Vireo habitat, but it’s uncertain at this time whether the land is ideal for such use, Conrad said.

Even if every available acre of potential Vireo land was acquired in the targeted zone – land with the right topography, geography and fauna – the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve would have only 1,200 of the needed 2,000 acres, Lessard said. The county faces a similar circumstance for the even more fragile Golden-Cheeked Warbler habitat and the 18 karst caves that must be acquired under the permit.

The city has completed its purchase of land for the BCP, but Travis County still needs to acquire another 2,700 acres. And that will be difficult with rising land prices. Land that went for $1,000 an acre when the BCP was permitted now goes for $28,000 an acre. At today’s prices, buying out the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve would cost $78 million.

The county doesn’t lack willing sellers; it lacks money. Lessard said fees are only now catching up with the revenue necessary to purchase land, but that flow of money is not the lump sum necessary to purchase the land as quickly as it needs to be purchased. At the current rate of revenue, it would take the county 10 years to complete the preserve.

The Balcones Canyonlands Preserve can’t wait 10 years, he said. Land is disappearing. The better choice would be three, four or even five years, if the deals could be cut to find the money.

The scientific advisory committee was clearly motivated by Lessard’s speech, offering a lengthy line of questioning on what it would take to get the preserve completed. Members, though, also were concerned about the process of the plant site selection, wanting to strip out the economic factors and simply weigh the environmental cost-benefit analysis of the various plant sites. Would the environmental costs of the Cortaña site outweigh the $15 million the city would have to spend to buy a site from a private developer? Lippe promised to re-run the numbers and provide fuller data to the committee to weigh the issues in the final site selection.

Committee members were incredulous the city could not find more than five sites. But as city and county staff members pointed out, the opportunity for sites is severely constrained by both access to water and the need for intake tunnels and transmission lines. The committee will meet again before the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve Coordinating Committee meets on August 21. The BCP Citizens Advisory Committee meets tonight to discuss the issue.

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

New aide for McCracken . . . Rossana Barrios, who has served on the city’s Library Commission and worked for a local law firm, is joining the staff of Council Member Brewster McCracken next week. McCracken said Barrios holds a Master of Public Affairs degree from Texas State University. She has also served on the Citizens Bond Advisory Committee. Barrios will take the office previously occupied by Rich Bailey, who moved over to the Mayor’s Office as Chief of Staff . . . Lost Creek works Council . . . Representatives of the Lost Creek Municipal Utility District and publicist Howard Falkenberg are making the rounds at City Hall this week in anticipation of two public hearings on annexation of the area by the city. Among their concerns: Annexation will cost the average household more than $800 per year in taxes, a point that likely will not sway Council members elected by taxpaying residents of the city. However, they also claim that the city will spend more on building a sewer line to replace the current wastewater system. MUD representatives claim the city has a worse environmental record than the district and that the addition of lift stations poses a potential threat to Barton Creek and the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve. The first hearing on annexation is set for 6pm Thursday night and the second for next Monday night . . . Meetings, we’ve got meetings . . . The MBE/WBE and Small Business Council Subcommittee meets at 4:30pm in the Boards and Commissions room at City Hall . . . The Airport Advisory Commission meets at 5pm at 2716 Spirit of Texas Dr. at ABIA . . . The Planning Commission meets at 6pm in Council Chambers at City Hall . . . The BCCP Citizens Advisory Committee meets at 6pm at Town Lake Center . . . The Travis County Commissioners Court meets at 9am in Commission Chambers, 314 W. 11th St. . . . The Williamson County Commissioners Court meets at 9:30am at the County Annex on Inner Loop Drive in Georgetown . . . The Hays County Commissioners Court meets at 9am at the Hays County Courthouse in San Marcos . . . Turkish delight . . . Mayor Will Wynn returned from last week’s trip to Turkey full of enthusiasm about the possibility of Antalya, Turkey becoming one of Austin’s sister cities. He said Antalya offers Austin the possibility of a relationship with a city that preaches tolerance within the Muslim tradition and has even dedicated a garden to three religions. The garden, he said, contains a mosque, a synagogue and a Christian church. The religions share administrative offices. But Austin must wait until October to find out whether the Turkish national parliament—which must vote on the relationship—will approve Austin as a sister city . . . DeBeauvoir in Colorado . . . Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir and two staff members travel to suburban Denver today to observe how a Hart InterCivic's Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail system works during a live election. The InterCivic System being used in today’s Colorado Primary is an electronic voting system, the same used here in Travis County, plus a paper trail system. DeBeauvoir said she plans to observe how well the system works and make a report to Travis County Commissioners of what it might take to implement it. The paper trail system is not currently approved for use in Texas, but it may become a necessary tool if the county loses a lawsuit files in June by the Texas Civil Rights Project . The TCRP sued Travis County and the Texas Secretary of State to force them to use a system that produces a paper record of each vote in an election. The county will not have to produce a paper copy of ballots for this November’s general election, but the case is scheduled to go before a District Judge next spring . . . Schroeder dismissal affirmed . . . The hearing examiner in the civil service appeal of fired APD Officer Julie Schroeder ruled on Monday that former Police Chief Stan Knee was justified in his decision to put Schroeder on indefinite suspension following her shooting of Daniel Rocha. "The misuse of deadly force is one of the most serious violations in the department. Therefore, the finding must be that the indefinite suspension is an appropriate discipline in this case," examiner Norman Bennett in his decision . . . CLOUT case dismissed . . . The group suing several top state officials over state spending lost a round in court Monday, as a visiting district judge dismissed their lawsuit. Citizens Lowering our Unfair Taxes, lead by Houston talk-show host Edd Hendee, claims state lawmakers have routinely violated an amendment to the state constitution linking spending to growth in the state’s economy. But the judge ruled that Hendee did not have proper standing to sue. "We’re going to the Third Court of Appeals," said attorney Gary Polland, who represented Hendee. "In this case, I think we clearly showed that a taxpayer can bring a lawsuit to enjoin illegal state spending. I think the judge blew the call."

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