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More data, arguments on Water Treatment Plant 4, conservation, today

Thursday, July 23, 2009 by Austin Monitor

While three Council Members feel that the Council has already devoted enough attention to analyzing factors spurring the Austin Water Utility to proceed with construction of Water Treatment Plant 4, four others say they need answers to some important questions before making a decision.

 

Some of those questions should be answered today. This morning, Council will hear a briefing on AWU’s conservation efforts. This afternoon, they will receive an update on WTP 4. They are scheduled to vote on a construction manager for the pre-construction phase of the project next month. A zoning case related to the plant is set for consideration today also but will likely be postponed.

 

Those who say they are convinced that it is time to move forward—Council Member Sheryl Cole, Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez and Mayor Lee Leffingwell—have been on the Council longer and have voted on the issue several times already.

 

During 2006, the city, its commissions and various members of the public spent a great deal of time arguing over whether to build the new plant at the environmentally sensitive Bull Creek site or to instead build a new treatment plant east of downtown to replace the now decommissioned Green Water Treatment Plant. The city tried unsuccessfully to convince Travis County to allow the plant to be constructed on the Cortaña site—a part of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserves and home to the endangered Black-capped Vireo. 

 

For his part, newly minted Mayor Lee Leffingwell seems to be looking forward to the upcoming Council decision to authorize a contract for a construction manager for pre-construction services. “The decision has already been made to build Water Treatment Plant 4. This is only one of the contracts, one of the steps along the way that has to be approved. Granted, it could be stopped if these contracts weren’t approved, but I think its way late to do that.”

 

Leffingwell cast the project in terms of his governing philosophy of focusing on fundamentals. He cited the comparative thrift of building the plant when construction costs are down 30 percent, as they are now. He also pointed out the boost to the local economy the plant would provide. “It’s going to have a big effect on our local economy, small business, especially local engineering companies that are counting on their contracts that they currently have with the city that are going to carry them through the tough times. They’re not getting jobs otherwise.”

 

Perhaps attempting to counter the arguments of some environmentalists, Leffingwell pointed out the new plant will reduce greenhouse gas emissions “by at least 13.5 percent,” due to its increased energy efficiency. Leffingwell, who has strong environmental credentials himself, pushed for greater water conservation efforts three years ago. As a result of efforts on his part, as well as others, the city enacted a much stronger conservation program.

 

Council Member Laura Morrison told In Fact Daily, “I believe there are still some questions we might need to be discussing, in terms of the current schedule and whether this is the right time to move forward on WTP 4.” She cited conflicting analysis from city staff and the Save Our Springs Alliance. While acknowledging Leffingwell’s own environmental arguments she said, “If we build the new one and start using WTP 4 today, we’re not talking about taking Davis and Ullrich offline,” merely instituting some improved efficiencies. Morrison was interested to find out how Austin may be able to replicate San Antonio’s aggressive and successful water conservation efforts.

 

Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez took issue with the framing of the debate. “What you’re hearing out on the street is trying to pit water conservation against increasing the water supply and I don’t think that’s appropriate. I think we should do both…we should move forward and plan for growth and we should move forward and do as many conservation policies as is possible.”

 

He pointed out that he had originally voted against the first planned WTP at Bull Creek due to environmental concerns. When the Council found another location he voted for it. Martinez said that the issue was also one of public health and safety. “It’s needed for construction and maintenance of our current water treatment plants,” he said.

 

Council Member Bill Spelman, a self-confessed “data junkie,” says he just doesn’t have enough hard data to make a decision on the timeline for the plant. “Most of the arguments so far have been based on political rhetoric and there hasn’t been a lot of empirical evidence yet,” he said. “As soon as the empirical evidence shows up I’ll be happy to look at it. The question isn’t whether we’re going to need to build one but when we’re going to need to build one…if we need it by 2014,” as the water utility says, “ then we need to start building it now.”

 

Council Member Randi Shade says she is hewing to a middle path on the issue, “I wouldn’t classify myself as being either camp. I’m really looking forward to getting the full, balanced information that is going to be provided (about the plant) and I am really open-minded to the phased approach that the Mayor’s talking about.” The phased plan would initially start the plant at 50 million gallons a day and depending on the success of conservation efforts and demographic change, delay expansion before reaching an eventual capacity of 300 MGD.

 

Shade’s problems are with the timeline “for critical decisions.” She told In Fact Daily she believes there is more to discuss about the planned plant — whose major capital expenditures for water could top $500 million. “I know that we have people who show up every week and talk about WTP 4 but we really haven’t had it in the kind of debate that I’m looking to have,” she said.

 

Freshman Council Member Chris Riley also would like to hear more about what is happening with conservation programs. “I would support postponement until such time as we’re confident our long term plans take into account the new information about climate change and reflect a serious water conservation effort,” Riley said. He contended that Austin could replicate San Antonio’s conservation from 170 gallons per person per day down to 140.

 

Council Member Sheryl Cole said she supports moving forward and called the possibility of running out of treatment capacity, “a risk that we simply cannot take.” She agreed with Leffingwell’s economic assessment and said the project, “serves as a stimulus package of sorts.” She also said she had “already heard concerns from potential developers about the water supply,” in far East Austin near SH 130. This plant, she said, would assure that development can move forward in that preferred growth area.

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