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Water Treatment Plant 4: one more argument today

Thursday, August 6, 2009 by Austin Monitor

On what City Council members once thought was a settled issue, players are lining up once again to joust over the city’s planned Water Treatment Plant 4. With a current price tag of some $508 million—or maybe more—the construction of the plant represents significant opportunities for local contractors. But groups like the Save Our Springs Alliance and Change Austin call it a boondoggle. (Their estimate of the cost is $849 million.)


When Mayor Lee Leffingwell calls up items 5 and 6 on today’s agenda—sometime after 4pm—advocates from both sides plan to be there to try to sway the Council either for or against selecting a construction manager for the plant and another contractor to do improvements to Bullick Hollow Road. The Council will also have to consider a small zoning change for the land.


Both sides have flooded the Council with emails urging them to take action one way or the other. Mayor Lee Leffingwell said Wednesday he intends to hold a town hall meeting on the plant on September 17. The Council will have to make another decision on a contract for the plant in October.


Business groups and advocates for local contractors say Austin needs the new capacity on line as soon as possible, and should take advantage of the current economic slump to build the plant at a lower cost.


Cloteal Haynes of Haynes-Eaglin-Waters says, “As a minority business owner, that project represents substantial opportunities for local small and minority businesses.” She says the construction manager at risk model “represents substantial opportunities because their business model is to use local firms as much as possible in the construction. That’s the second biggest project that the city will have undertaken, second to the airport. So when you talk about business opportunity there’s no comparison.” Haynes is a likely subcontractor but she is only one of many business people looking forward to construction of the plant.


Another is Jeremy Martin of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. He says the project would create “more than 3800 direct and indirect jobs and the vast majority of those would be for local contractors.”


Frank Fuentes of the US Hispanic Contractors Association told In Fact Daily, “What this water plant represents to Hispanic contractors is not only a shot in the arm for our prosperity but it also means that city leaders are moving forward with what it needed ….Why must we wait until we really, really are in dire straits to build the plant?”


Austin voters approved funds for WTP4 in 1984, but it has been booted around as an environmental and political football ever since. The plant, planned for the corner of RM 620 and Bullick Hollow Road, is currently scheduled 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).


On the other side, environmental groups, led by the Save Our Springs Alliance, say that more aggressive conservation measures can stave off the need for WTP4 for as long as another decade. They also point to dropping lake levels at Lake Travis as a reason to avoid pumping from the lake. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and the Save Barton Creek Association (SBCA) also weighed in against building the plant now. However, SBCA president Jon Beall, sent an email to Council on Wednesday saying the Council should “ignore the resolution you have received on WTP 4.” He cited “irregularities with the SBCA vote,” on the matter, saying an insufficient number of board members participated in the action.


EDF’s Mary Kelly, like other environmentalists, urged the city to invest in additional conservation measures rather than building the plant in 2010.


On the business side, Gary Farmer, president of Heritage Title Company, says that if WTP4 is postponed, the “rate payers will lose out.” He pointed out that the estimates show the city could save 25 to 30 percent of construction costs by doing the project during the recession. “And 30 percent of $500 million is real money where I come from.” ($500 million is an estimate to build the 50 MGD plant.)

He also said that one of the industries that’s been most hurt by the recession in Austin is construction – exactly the kind of jobs a project like this would create. “It would help people who could benefit from this work,” he said.

He also pointed out that, with Austin continuing to grow, the city needs the plant. “Right now, we have two water treatment plants and they are both 50 years old,” he said. “What happens if one goes down? We have no margin of error.” 


Adrian Neely, chair of the MBEWBE and Small Business Enterprise Procurement Program Advisory Committee, told In Fact Daily one of the main reasons minority contractors were happy that the city recommended the construction manager at risk method was that it gives an opportunity for the contractor to break up the work into smaller components, giving smaller firms an opportunity to participate. “The only concern now is that City Council will approve the project. I think it will have a big impact on local businesses.”


Harry Savio of the Homebuilders Association of Greater Austin said building WTP4 is an investment in the city’s future residential needs. “It will be an issue for people who might want to move jobs to Austin,” he said. “One of the things we need is another plant that has the capability to reach north and east Austin with less power. Obviously, I think that it is a real need. The people we are competing with are definitely going to make a big deal about whether we have future water capacity.”


Bill Bunch with the Save Our Springs Alliance not only disputes the need for the plant but also whether the money should be spent on this project. “If we want a jobs program, we ought to be building something useful, not a billion dollar boondoggle,” he told In Fact Daily. “And I would suggest that if we want to focus on something relating to water there’s three things: one, conservation jobs. Two, we could move forward our contracting to replace our leaky pipes and plug the leaks because we’re wasting enormous amounts of water. And third would be moving forward the expansion of our reclaimed water, which includes laying of pipes and building the storage tanks for the water.”


Activists Linda Curtis and Brian Rodgers’ organization is also opposing WTP4. “Remember last year we told you that the City overpaid for the land for this project by $20 million?” they wrote in a recent email to their members. “That was just the tip of the iceberg. You’ll hear an earful on Thursday that will really give you apoplexy.”

They continued “It’s obvious that the big pushers (for brevity, let’s just call ’em the growth machine) behind WTP4 are some of the same people who are just hunky dory with turning their heads to the huge property tax under-valuations (giveaways) by the Travis Central Appraisal District.”


Both groups are encouraging their members to show up at Council today to oppose the project.

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