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Despite conservation, city needs WTP4, says Meszaros

Monday, October 6, 2008 by Mark Richardson

Greg Meszaros, the top official at the Austin Water Utility, says the city is moving ahead with building Water Treatment Plant 4, despite assertions by some that conservation measures have given the city more time before the plant will be needed. WTP 4, with its long and sometimes tortured history, is now scheduled to begin service in 2014.

 

Save Our Springs Alliance Director Bill Bunch raised the timing question at the September 25 City Council meeting.

 

“As you all may recall, you had at your very first meeting for Council Members (Mike) Martinez and (Sheryl) Cole (in 2006) an emergency item to rush forward with Water Treatment Plant 4 so that we could have that plant done by 2011,” Bunch said. “It was an emergency then, (but) it’s not an emergency now. The staff is now saying the target date is 2014. From your own staff’s calculations, we save $14.3 million every year we can postpone this plant. So we’re talking about $40 million of savings that you have already enjoyed by slowing it down this much.”

 

He also said that water conservation efforts have made the plant less necessary. ”And with the phenomenal success in what’s really a first year effort of our water conservation efforts, it’s now crystal clear that we do not need any additional water treatment plant capacity for probably two decades or more,” Bunch said. “I urge you to step back, save us some money on this. And also understand what you are doing.”

 

Voters approved bonds for WTP4 in 1984. Shortly after the bond election, the city purchased land at the headwaters of Bull Creek as a site for the plant. Plans for WTP4 sat idle until 2004, when the city began making plans to build on the Bull Creek site. After months of arguments about whether the city could build a plant on the site without jeopardizing the fragile Jollyville Salamander, the city made two efforts to find an alternative site before settling on the Bullick Hollow site on FM 620 near Lake Travis.

 

In Fact Daily sat down this week with Greg Meszaros, director of the Austin Water Utility to ask about the city’s plans for the $300 million facility.

 

Meszaros said a successful water conservation effort was one of the main reasons for moving forward with WTP4.

 

“That was the goal. It was one of the keys for us to be able to move forward on Water Treatment Plant 4 and have it online by 2014,” he said. “If you look at the history of Austin, our per capita consumption has been dropping for the past 20 or 30 years, yet overall usage continues to rise. It is because the population of Austin continues to rise, with hundreds of thousands of people moving here over the past 20 years or so. That trend is going to continue and we need to prepare the infrastructure for that to happen.”

 

He said conservation is an ongoing process. “You can’t take a year or two of conservation and extrapolate that out into the future. You have to keep working at conservation year after year to continue the process. It doesn’t remain a constant.”

 

Water Treatment Plant 4 is part of meeting the city’s future infrastructure needs, Meszaros said. “We’ve worked through that with our Council in terms of why we need it and how conservation fits in to the picture.”

 

“Water, unlike electricity, cannot be imported off the grid. You can’t move it around—it’s heavy. You have to produce it here locally and we want to be in the right position to have adequate treatment capacity in the future,” Meszaros said.

 

He said WTP4’s location, near Lake Travis, gives it an advantage in terms of energy consumption.

 

“One of the goals of our city and out community is to reduce our carbon footprint,” he said. “And by utilizing WTP4’s location, pumping from a higher location, we will be able to use gravity to distribute water rather than building pump stations, which will significantly reduce our power usage.”

 

Bunch also said that building the transmission main to the Bullick Hollow site might damage the hydrology of Bull Creek and threaten the Jollyville Plateau Salamander, which is under consideration as an endangered species.

 

“The backup makes clear it’s more than just preliminary investigations but also contracting with this company (Black & Veatch) to do the construction,” he said. “This transmission main runs through that preserve under those springs and poses an enormous threat to the hydrology of Bull Creek, the upper headwater springs and the salamanders that live there.”

 

Meszaros told In Fact Daily he disagreed with Bunch’s assertion that tunneling could be just as dangerous in an environmentally sensitive area. “Now, realize that the transmissions mains, particularly through the environmentally sensitive areas of the BCP, will be a tunnel-bore project that will be between 40 and 100 feet underground,” he said. “There will be no above-ground construction. We will be well below any springs or karst features in that area. I am very confident that we will have no impact on endangered species in environmentally sensitive areas. “

 

At an Environmental Board meeting Wednesday night, in response to a question from Board Member Mary Gay Maxwell, Bill Staubner with AWU assured members that while the transmission mains were in the planning stages final routes for the water lines have not yet been determined.

 

Meszaros, who just celebrated the end of his first year on the job, said the Council has made a decision on the plant and the city needs to move past its divisions over WTP4.

 

“All in all, for the community to be successful, it needs to remove the shadow of Water Treatment Plant 4,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time before we will need to build the plant and we’ve been trying to work through these issues for more than 20 years. We have spent tens of millions of dollars and have expanded those investments, and I think we are well invested in a new site. Good communities move on, they remove the shadows and I believe we need the facility.”

 

The city is paying for construction of WTP4 by issuing revenue bonds, which customers pay for through their water bills.

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