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Water utility seeking stimulus funds for ‘green’ upgrades

Monday, June 15, 2009 by Bill McCann

The Austin Water Utility is eyeing as much as $53.7 million in federal economic stimulus funds for priority wastewater projects, including extensive and innovative upgrades at the city’s Hornsby Bend Biosolids Plant.


Utility officials believe the city is in excellent position to get at least some stimulus funding because the $31.8 million Hornsby Bend project is the top ranked “green” project on the draft priority list prepared by the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB), which is running the program in Texas. Several other city projects, including improvements at the city’s Walnut Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant and a project to transport reclaimed water to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, also are ranked in the top 10.


Under TWDB rules, the maximum economic stimulus assistance that the city could get for its wastewater projects is $53.7 million.


“We are very optimistic, especially about the Hornsby Bend project because of its high ranking for environmental and energy benefits,” said Austin Water Utility Director Greg Meszaros, who updated the Water and Wastewater Commission on June 10 on the city’s efforts to obtain economic stimulus funding. 


The Hornsby Bend facility processes sewage sludge – the solids in sewage – from the city’s wastewater treatment plants.  Sludge is mixed with yard wastes collected by the city to make compost called Dillo Dirt, which the city sells wholesale, earning about $500,000 a year. Part of the work planned at Hornsby Bend is to add 10 to 12 acres of composting pads to expand significantly the Dillo Dirt production, according to Meszaros.


A second project calls for rehabilitating aging digester equipment that breaks down the sludge. A product of the digestion process is methane gas. Plans also call for adding equipment to clean the gas and pipe it to fuel power generators that will produce electricity to help operate the facility. Some of the electricity generated at the plant also may be delivered to the power grid, Meszaros said.


If the city does get economic stimulus funding, it will come in the form of zero-interest, 30-year loans under the TWDB process, according to Meszaros. This would save the city from paying interest rates of typically 3 to 5 percent. In the case of the Hornsby Bend project, accumulated interest savings over 30 years would be an estimated $22 million, he said.


Austin Water Utility is scheduled to ask the City Council this week to authorize staff to formally apply for stimulus funding for wastewater projects and to negotiate any agreements with the TWDB. At the same time, the utility will seek council approval for an additional $3.5 million to allow engineering firms on the utility rotation list to begin design work on the Hornsby Bend and other projects that may get the stimulus funding. One of the requirements of the funding is that a project’s construction must be bid by next February and Austin Water Utility officials want to make sure that tight schedule will be met.


The TDWB is making available nearly $172 million funneled to Texas under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 for financial assistance to public utilities in Texas for various wastewater projects. The TWDB also is carrying out a separate stimulus funding program for water projects. But City of Austin projects eligible for that program have not gotten a high ranking, according to Meszaros.


The TWDB held a public hearing Friday on the draft priority list for wastewater projects, and is scheduled to vote on the final list at its monthly meeting on June 18, said TWDB Public Information Officer Leslie Anderson. Soon after the vote, the final priority list will be posted on the TWDB web site and entities that are eligible for funding will receive a letter requesting that they submit a formal application for funds, Anderson said.

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