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Long-delayed Water Treatment Plant 4 finds a new home

Thursday, January 17, 2008 by Austin Monitor

The City of Austin has purchased four tracts—three contiguous pieces of land near the intersection of RM 620 and Bullick Hollow Road plus a fourth tract in another location as open space to mitigate for the impervious cover – as a home for the itinerant Water Treatment Plant 4. City officials say they are confident that the 50 million gallon per day facility will be online by 2014.


The price tag on the four tracts was $32 million. Last month, the Council directed Austin Water Utility to purchase two possible new sites in order to avoid building on the environmentally more sensitive and controversial Bull Creek site.


Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza conducted the negotiations with DHD Ventures, LLC, a North Carolina limited liability company, according to Assistant City Attorney Kathryn Mullen. John Joseph Jr. is the managing member of DHD Ventures.


Mullen noted that the closing on the Bullick Hollow tracts began on Tuesday afternoon and concluded on Wednesday. Although the $32 million includes payment for the fourth tract, she said the city and the seller have to wait to close on that tract until a survey on it is completed. She said she expects that to happen within 30 days.


Garza told In Fact Daily the three tracts where the plant will sit equal 96 acres and the tract dedicated to open space is 14 acres.


Garza said he had made it a point to make sure that the landowner would be able to provide open space because the rules for impervious cover in the Lake Travis watershed are more restrictive than those for the Bull Creek watershed. Impervious cover is limited to 20 percent in the Lake Travis watershed.


“So we always understood that we would need to seek a variance,” unless additional land was purchased, he said. “And one of the things that Council Member (Lee) Leffingwell definitely stressed was that to the extent we can minimize the need for a variance, have this property owner provide the open space. Mr. Joseph was very supportive in that.”


Garza said the open space tract had no impervious cover restrictions prior to being purchased by the city because it was grandfathered under state law.

“So, theoretically, you could develop the entire tract.”


WTP 4 still has its detractors, particularly among the environmental community. Bill Bunch, director of the Save Our Springs Alliance recently told the Public Involvement Committee of the city’s Water Rate Cost of Service Study that the city could save the cost of the treatment plant through conservation measures.


“Postponing the need for a new water plant for 15 or 20 years is readily achievable,” he said. “Austin wastes a lot of water. We especially waste water for landscaping during peak demand periods on hot, dry days in August and September. Pairing an aggressive peaking rate for all users with incentives, education and other methods for increasing water use efficiency can immediately achieve far greater than the ‘one percent reduction from peak per year for 10 years’ goal that the City Council adopted last year.”


Bunch said the city could save between $500 million and $1 billion, the “real” cost of the plant with steep peak rates for all water users. 


Gaza said despite the criticism, the city remains focused on completing the project by summer of 2014.


“I think, based on the information we have, and based on the most reasonable and responsible projections, we believe that the best thing we can do for our community and the most responsible thing we can do for our community is to continue on the summer 2014 target,” he said. “One of the things Council Member (Lee) Leffingwell has stressed over and over is that we cannot afford as a community to delay the first phase of this. It’s too risky. If we’re wrong, we’re going to be critically wrong. Once we complete the first phase, if we find there are ways to delay the other phases, we can do that.” At full build out, the plant could provide 300 mgd. 


Tina Van Wei, who is manger of WTP 4 for the Public Works Department, said the city hired engineering firm Carollo Engineers, would be on the new site within the next two weeks to begin geotechnical borings. Such borings will take about five weeks, she said, with preliminary work expected to be completed this summer.


Van Wei said Carollo stopped work on the Bull Creek site as soon as they were directed to do so by the City Council but that some of the design work for the project could be transferred from the old site to the new one. She said it would be possible to begin work on stormwater facilities by the fall of 2009.


Austin voters approved the original funding for WTP 4 in a 1984 bond election. Land for the original site at the Bull Creek headwaters was purchased shortly thereafter and then the project sat dormant for almost 20 years. It was revived by city staff in 2004, but immediately ran afoul of the city’s Environmental Board, which expressed major reservations about the environmentally sensitive site, which borders the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Preserve.


City staff undertook an alternative site study, and after a good bit of wrangling, recommended the Cortaña tract – a part of the BCP – as an secondary site. When Travis County, the city’s partner in the BCP, balked at that site, Council members decided to go forward with the original Bull Creek site, which was permitted and ready for construction.


However, as preliminary engineering began on that site, environmental and engineering problems began to crop up. In August of last year, Council members approved a one-year moratorium on the project, and ordered yet another search for an alternative site. The city announced in December that it had found the land at RM 620 and Bullick Hollow.


The city is still moving forward, as directed by Council, on acquisition of a second group of tracts for the water treatment plant, in case the Bullick Hollow site proves unworkable. Garza said the owners of those tracts are different from the DHD Ventures group.

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