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Mark Richardson is a multimedia journalist, editor and writer who has worked in digital, print and broadcast media for three decades. He is a nationally recognized editor and reporter who has covered government, politics and the environment. A journalism graduate from the University of Texas at Austin, he was recently awarded a Foundation for Investigative Journalism grant and has three Associated Press Managing Editors awards for excellence in reporting.
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Council worries that water tower cost could hurt conservation efforts
Several City Council members, particularly Lee Leffingwell, expressed concern last week over the high cost of building a “designer” water tower for the city’s Water Reclamation System, fearing that it could diminish the cost advantage of reused water as a conservation method.
The location for the first water tower is the Mueller Airport Redevelopment site. The Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition has been pushing for an aesthetically pleasing tower, but the price could be more than twice the city’s original estimates.
Mueller area neighborhood groups have worked with the city to find an attractive design for the 51st Street water tower, but according to Austin Water Utility Director Greg Meszaros the cost of that water tower has grown considerably in the two years since the Council asked them to research the costs.
Bids received last fall for two types of designed water towers came in at about $8 million and $16 million, respectively. There were four bidders for the middle-level “composite” design tank and one for the higher-cost “lattice” design tank, though city staff said the single bid for that design was disqualified. The original estimated cost of those two towers was $3.2 million and $5.96 million back in 2006.
“It’s very important that we maintain this cost differential between reclaimed and treated water to incentivize – and the customers that are going to be using this, by the way, are big customers, not individual residences — so a very small unit price increase is going to have a big effect,” Leffingwell said. “We need to look very closely at the impact of costing out that delta as a part of the price of reclaimed water. My gut feeling is that’s not going to work very well, but we certainly need to take a look at it. “
Leffingwell has pushed hard for water conservation, leading a city task force that developed a plan to save 33 million gallons a day of water.
Early this decade, the city adopted a number of improvements to the Water Reclamation Program, expanding it from use by the four city-owned golf courses to a system that will serve a number of industrial users, including the University of Texas. The city’s wastewater plants are capable of producing more than 130 million gallons a day of treated affluent.
Meszaros told Council members that when AWU first started the project the plan was to build just a standard tank, and that estimate was significantly lower.
“It was probably in the $3 to $4 million range,” he said. “As we switched to the more enhanced styles, our estimates were high but not as high as the bid actually came in. I think it’s just the nature of the bidding right now, that construction costs continued to go up even over the last couple years.”
The city plans to build a series of seven water towers for the reclaimed system over the next three decades, and the high cost of the initial tower is a concern to Mayor Will Wynn.
“If we were to choose this model and if we make the policy directive that the next five tanks will be this tank, is there an opportunity . . .to make the next few of them cost less, at least from a material standpoint?” Wynn said. “If we knew that this was going to be the design for the next five of these, could we be saving enough money in the future that helps us, frankly, justify this delta?”
Meszaros did not have an immediate answer to the mayor’s question, but said that since the current bids expire in March Council would need to act before then to ensure that the tower can be built for the current $7.9 million bid.
Wynn instructed AWU staff to return to the Council on Feb. 14 with answers to several questions from Council members and a report on how the higher costs of the water towers could affect future reclaimed water rates. There is no Council meeting this week.
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