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WWW panel backs city on new WTP4 site

Thursday, August 3, 2006 by

Two panelists express major doubts about decision-making process

The Water and Wastewater Commission gave its approval last night to the city’s application to amend its Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan permit to use the Cortaña site on the North Lake Austin Macrosite as the future location of Water Treatment Plant #4. Two members of the commission lodged strenuous objections to the vote, criticizing the process for making the decision as much as the site.

The protest was even more dramatic because the Water and Wastewater Commission – unlike other commissions – rarely splits votes or even offers much opposition to city proposals, at least in recent years.

Commissioners Leslie Pool and Laura Raun, however, were so distressed with the final 5-2 vote to support the city’s permit application that the two submitted written comments to city staff to outline their deep concerns and strong reservations about any vote.

Pool said she wasn’t necessarily opposed to the Cortaña site but that she simply could not make an informed choice without further information. Raun echoed those concerns. Both cited the need to fully explore current capacity, conservation and usage trends.

"We have nowhere near sufficient information to advise Council on the water plant — and its cascading issues — that are hugely complicated with numerous moving parts," Pool told her colleagues before she proposed a special-called meeting on the issue. "We need to take the time and energy so that we can appropriately advise the Council."

Pool admitted she had clearly, and vocally, opposed the water treatment plant site at the headwaters of Bull Creek. But she was equally certain that Council had not been informed that the new site had not been fully vetted with relevant commissions. Members of the Environmental Board offered the same objections (See below).

Assistant City Manager Juan Garza took responsibility for advising AWU Director Chris Lippe to cancel a special called meeting with the Water and Wastewater Commission on the Cortaña site last week, before the Council vote to award a contract amendment to Carollo Engineers for preliminary investigation of the site (See In Fact Daily, July 28, 2006.) The item was supposed to be pulled from the agenda, but at the last minute Council chose to move forward with the vote, Garza told the commissioners.

City on a fast track

Asked by Raun why city staff was in such a rush on an item of such tremendous magnitude – an item that the commission had heard nothing about until the week of the Council vote — Garza said the city was trying to get the contract with Carollo Engineering signed so that Carollo had a six-month window to complete the on-site environmental assessment, which must be done during the "off season" when the Black-Capped Vireo is not nesting, which is between September and March.

In the case of either the Zoning and Platting Commission or the Planning Commission, deep reservations such as those expressed by Pool and Raun would have delayed a final vote. In this case, however, it barely slowed down the commission, which passed the proposal with little discussion. Chair Michael Warner offered the motion to support the staff and was joined by Commissioners Chien Lee, Roger Chan, Karen Friese and Cheryl Scott-Ryan. Commissioners Reynaldo Gonzalez and Glen Coleman have reportedly resigned from the commission.

The vote came after three hours of conversation with Lippe and his staff, which included an extensive discussion about the ecological aspects of the city’s choice – information probably far more relevant to the Environmental Commission — and then a more abbreviated discussion of the process to revise the chosen plant site.

Frustration over delayed report

Pool expressed frustration that the commission lacked the full report from Alan Plummer and Associates on alternative site assessments, which favored the Bull Creek and Cortaña sites. The report, presented to the commission for the first time last night, was completed in September 2005. Pool said commissioners had asked for updates on the report on a number of occasions but were told it was on the "back burner" because the city was proceeding with the replacement of the Green Water Treatment Plant.

As Lippe explained, that direction changed with the Council’s vote at the end of June. Lippe said the utility would make greater efforts to update the utility’s website and additional information so that people could get better information on the Cortaña site.

Pool also questioned why the city had never seen a $1.5 million study of the original site from Carollo Engineers. Certainly this study was relevant to Council’s final decision, Pool said, adding that even if the site changed, a study of that magnitude might offer useful insight to both the commission and the Council.

A number of speakers, including two former city biologists, also lent strong objections to the choice of the Cortaña site. While the city staff argued that the Cortaña site was a better choice than the original location on Bull Creek – which protects the more ecologically sensitive Golden-Cheeked Warbler habitat— Melody Lytle, a former city biologist, said both sites were equally precious. It was not a Hobson’s Choice, she said –neither should be sacrificed.

Warner did raise the question of Travis County’s role in the decision. The county, as an equal partner in the BCCP, could choose to pass on the plant location, forcing the city to file a separate application on the Cortaña site or to find a new site altogether. A joint city-county committee considers BCCP issues. The members of the committee are Mayor Will Wynn, Commissioner Gerald Daugherty and city wildlands manager Willy Conrad.

Council Member Lee Leffingwell told In Fact Daily that the Council decision on amending the permit—which had been expected on August 10—would not be scheduled until August 24. He said the reason for the delay was Daugherty’s inability to meet until after that date.

While the city’s utility staff considered the case closed on a special meeting, Warner said a special meeting on the Cortaña issue – and even a recision of the commission’s approval with the right number of votes – was still a possibility.

Environmental Board takes no action on WTP4

Last night, upon learning that City Council’s consideration of the amendment to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service permit for the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan would be postponed, members of the Environmental Board delayed consideration of the permit matter until August 16.

Chair David Anderson said the BCCP Scientific Advisory Committee and Citizens Advisory Committee would meet August 9 to consider the permit amendment. That will leave ample time for the Environmental Board to consider input from both committees before making its recommendation.

The Environmental Board had been scheduled to hear the same staff presentation as the Water and Wastewater Commission last night.

Several board members sounded off on their displeasure with the way city staff has handled the process, particularly in light of recent revelations that a report on alternative sites for WTP4 had been complete since last September, but withheld by city staff.

"It feel like the city staff has abandoned our subcommittee process," said Vice Chair Karin Ascot. "They had the alternative site study in their hands but never gave it to us. Now, they tell us, ‘Here’s a new site,’ but now we have all these problems with it."

Board Member Phil Moncada said problems with the alternative site study were only a symptom of a larger problem.

"I seconded the motion to create the subcommittee to study WTP4, and served on it along with the chair of this board, Mary Ruth Holder," he said. "We gave them very clear direction on what we wanted, and they have done very little of it. I think it’s a slap in the face to this board," said Moncada.

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

Our hero . . . While In Fact Daily’s intrepid team of reporters was busy watching a pair of commission hearings Tuesday evening, the editor decided to make her get-away. But her get-away car would not start. Two separate wrecker companies said they could not get their vehicles into the City Hall parking garage, leaving the editor wondering who to call in such an emergency. Lawyer Michael Whellan said AAA was out of the question. "Call Richard Suttle," he said. Sure, Suttle said, he’d be happy to help, and he arrived shortly thereafter with his truck, tow bar, assorted tools, shotgun, first aid kit (and who knows what else.) After pushing the car out of its parking place, Suttle determined the one item he did not have was jumper cables. But not to worry. While the editor was asking others for the equipment, our hero tightened the screws on the battery, jumped in the car and started the engine, proving that there really is a Superman. You just need to know who to call . . . 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