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Utility continues push for Water Treatment Plant 4

Friday, July 24, 2009 by Austin Monitor

The city’s water utility is approaching its 35th year of advocating for a new water treatment plant in the Lake Travis area, but continues to run into opposition from some Council members and others who say they are not convinced it is necessary.


Austin Water Utility Director Greg Meszaros on Thursday once again outlined for Council numerous reasons the utility believes it is in the city’s best interests to move forward with Water Treatment Plant 4 in the near future rather than put off construction as some have suggested.


The plant, planned for the corner of RM 620 and Bullick Hollow Road, is currently on track to open in 2014 as a 50 million gallon per day (MGD) facility that draws its water directly from Lake Travis. The city plans to eventually expand the plant to a treatment and pumping capacity of 300 MGD. (See In Fact Daily, July 23, 2009).


Meszaros argued that the timing was right for WTP4 and cited present economic advantages for capital projects and job creation for local contractors as a driver for more immediate action on the plant. He also asserted that redundancy within the water system and demographic trends would outweigh the efforts of conservation, which he said had been successful.


However, Council Member Chris Riley didn’t necessarily agree with the conservation numbers. He asked whether or not grey water reclamation – which Meszaros had spoken about earlier — would not be a more cost-effective way to conserve water. “Some of those programs are going to take a long time to implement,” Meszaros said and added that even aggressive conservation efforts would likely not elicit a large enough and speedy enough change in usage.


Underscoring the decades of discussion about the plant, Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza introduced Meszaros’ presentation by pointing out that WTP4 has been in discussion since he was nine years old in 1975.


The presentation came just after a morning session in which Meszaros had trumpeted the successful conservation efforts of the city’s water scheduling program. However, even counting for 25 MGD in savings, Meszaros said the plant would be needed before 2017. However, he cautioned that unforeseen construction delays are often an issue for such large scale projects and he said progress should continue despite the extra few years that could be added to the need projections. Growth rates for Austin Water Utility’s served area are expected to stay between 1.8 and 2.2 percent.


Meszaros also pointed out that the location of WTP4 in Northwest Austin would enable the city to serve the Desired Development Zone around Pearson Place, Robinson Ranch and the North Burnet Gateway.


Council Member Randi Shade, seen by some as a potential swing vote in the WTP4 decisions, asked about worst case scenarios should the aging Davis plant, built in 1954, fail. Meszaros said, “Hundreds of thousands would be without water if it failed.” He said even the addition of WTP4 wouldn’t be able to shoulder the additional water demand needed.


Meszaros said industry publications and City of Austin data that showed significant savings on construction costs as firms sought to outbid each other in the flagging economy. He estimated the city could save between $23 and $45 million.


Council Member Bill Spelman expressed concern that deferring the project could actually save the city money in today’s dollars accounting for inflation. Meszaros said delaying even a year could cost between $18 and $53 million. The two promised to meet up later and fill each other in on their respective methodology.


Spelman also wanted to know whether or not the 3,804 jobs AWU claimed it would add because of WTP4 could be added in other water efficiency and conservation efforts. Meszaros essentially said those jobs would take three to four years to come online.


Council Member Laura Morrison took aim at redundancies and funding. After Morrison said, “it is a bonus, redundancy, but we haven’t had it before,” Meszaros pointed out that redundancy existed until the Green Water Treatment Plant was closed last year. Austin residents also voted in favor of a bond in the 1980s for the new plant.


Council is scheduled to take up the issue again at its next meeting on August 6.

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