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City Council holds unprecedented debate on Water Treatment Plant 4

Wednesday, September 16, 2009 by Bill McCann

Supporters and opponents of Water Treatment Plant 4 are preparing to square off tomorrow (Sept. 17) in what is believed to be the first-of-a-kind debate, with the goal to help Austin City Council members decide when and whether the plant should be built.

Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez and Council Member Sheryl Cole have been strong supporters of the plant. Meanwhile, Council members Chris Riley, Laura Morrison and Bill Spelman have bombarded the water utility with questions. Council Member Randi Shade, a possible swing vote who initially requested the debate, has said she would not fully make up her mind until after the debate. A key vote is scheduled for late October on a contract for extensive site work on the project.

In the debate, Austin Water Utility officials, who insist that the plant will offer many benefits for the city, will face leaders of several environmental groups, who argue that Austin does not need the plant and can’t afford it. Participants on both sides have been spending considerable time and effort preparing for the battle of words.

Veteran observers say this is the first time they can recall an Austin City Council adopting this kind of format – reserving a hall and holding a debate – to gather the facts on a big-ticket, controversial issue, away from the distractions of council chambers. 

“It’s part debate, part forum and part town hall meeting,” said Jim Walker, chair of Envision Central Texas and moderator of the event. “I am not aware of any precedent for this at the city, but I guess I will wait until after it happens to see whether it is a good precedent or a bad precedent.”

The event will be debate-like because it will offer both sides equal time to discuss issues, Walker said. At the same time, it will be forum-like because it will get on the table important information that council members will need to make a decision, he said.

“I hope it will help elevate the civility of the discussion on this important issue and demonstrate that people can have honest differences without yelling at each other,” said Walker, who said he was asked by Mayor Leffingwell’s office to be moderator.

The format calls for both sides of the issue to give an overview of their positions. Next, the detailed discussion will focus on four areas: demand/capacity, reliability, environmental impacts, and fiscal impacts, according to Walker. City Council members will have an opportunity to ask questions throughout. In addition, Walker said, an e-mail address has been set up for the public to submit questions. Walker said he plans to group and distill the questions, and will give both sides an opportunity to answer them. The e-mail address is: WTP4.townhall.questions@gmail.com.

“This is a very big issue for this community and before I felt comfortable about a vote, I wanted to have all the facts,” said Council Member Randi Shade of her initial suggestion to hold a debate. “Too often the council has these big issues sandwiched between a historic zoning case and a bicycle plan, shifting from issue to issue. This debate will give us an opportunity to have a focused conversation.”

Shade said she understands that debate participants are making extensive preparations, and she appreciates the effort from both sides. 

“I understand this format is fairly unique,” said Austin Water Utility Director Greg Meszaros. “I came to Austin to experience new things and that is certainly the case here.”

Meszaros, who will be a debate participant, said he is looking forward to the chance to discuss in detail the benefits of the plant, which is to be built on 92 acres in Northwest Austin at the southwest corner of FM 620 and Bullick Hollow Road. The plant’s first phase, capable of producing 50 million gallons of treated water a day, is estimated to cost $508 million. City staff proposes to have it operating in 2014. The plant would be built in four phases, eventually capable of treating 300 million gallons of water a day.

“A lot of discussion has locked in on whether the plant is needed in 2014 or 2015 or whenever,” Meszaros said. “But there are other significant issues including reliability, economic development, and the fact that we believe this is the best time financially where we can get the lowest total cost and lowest total rate increase.”

One key function of the new plant will be to deliver water to already-approved developments, including Robinson Ranch and Avery Ranch, planned or underway in the North Austin area, Meszaros said.

“One-third of the total project cost will be for transmission systems to areas in the desired development zone,” he said. “Delay does not just delay treatment works, but water transmission systems would be delayed as well.”

The alternative would be to expand the Ullrich or Davis treatment plants, which are on Lake Austin and are 40 to 50 years old, then add the expense of pumping water from those plants to the north, Meszaros said. Water Treatment Plant 4 would get water directly from Lake Travis, which is at a higher elevation than the other two plants, thereby saving energy – and reducing greenhouse gases – in pumping water to where it is needed, he added.

On the other side, Bill Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, one of a coalition of groups opposed to the plant, said the water utility’s demand projections to justify the plant are “way off base.” The utility’s all-time peak demand for water, 240 million gallons a day, occurred in August 2001, Bunch said. Since then, water demands have been below that all-time peak, even though the city has added 100,000 people and has gone through two hot and dry summers in 2008 and 2009, Bunch said.  He credited the city for initiating conservation efforts, and the public for responding.

“With continued and expanded conservation and water reclamation, we believe the plant could be delayed indefinitely and give the city time to have an honest planning process and look at our options,” said Bunch, who will be one of those speaking against the plant at the debate.”Otherwise, major pieces of the comprehensive plan will be rendered meaningless.”

Some critics have characterized opponents of the plant as being against growth, Bunch said. Not true. Other cities have added population without increasing water use by investing in water conservation and reuse, he said.

“San Antonio, for example, has added 400,000 people to its service area over the past 20 plus years using the same amount of water, Bunch said. “They were forced to get serious about conservation and they did.”

Like others, Bunch said he could not recall an instance where past councils sponsored a public debate, giving opponents equal time, on a major controversial issue.

“This is an unusual approach that should allow meaningful and fair exchange of information,” Bunch said.  “And with the debate being away from City Hall, it should be more of a learning atmosphere than a political one.”

Meanwhile, Council Member Bill Spelman on Monday e-mailed to colleagues and members of the community for comment a presentation raising questions about the water utility’s projections for future peak water demand, one of the drivers for when a new water plant will be needed. In the presentation, Spelman noted that peak-day per-capita water pumpage has been decreasing steadily over the years because Austin is becoming denser, with more people living in apartments and condos. Due to this downward trend, he said future water demand is likely to be less than water utility estimates, maybe much less.

The bottom line, so far, is we have three more years, and maybe more, to make a decision about the plant, Spelman concluded, adding that a delay would save money, get the city past the recession, and allow it to consider alternatives more carefully.

The event is set for the Palmer Events Center, 900 Barton Springs Road (Exhibit Hall 2), from 6 to 9 p.m. Initially, it was to be at St. Edward’s University, but was shifted to Palmer this week after concerns about space, parking and logistics at St. Ed’s.

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