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Water Treatment Plant 4 debate brings out crowds, civil debate

Friday, September 18, 2009 by Bill McCann

The nearly 500 people who showed up at the Palmer Events Center to hear last night’s debate on the pros and cons of Water Treatment Plant 4 got a little education, a little entertainment and a touch of political theater.


The City Council sponsored the event to help members sort out the facts about when and whether the controversial plant is needed. A key council vote on a contract for extensive site preparation for the plant is scheduled for consideration in October.


It was the first time that long-time City Hall observers could recall a council setting up a venue outside of its chambers and giving both sides an equal opportunity to duke it out.


Council Member Randi Shade, whose request helped get the ball rolling on the debate in the first place, said she thought the event was very successful.


“I really give a lot of credit to the people who presented. They were incredibly well prepared,” Shade said. “I am more convinced than ever about the importance of conservation. I have a much better understanding about demand projections and the assumptions that underlie them and I think ultimately it’s about your risk tolerance and I think that’s what the council will have to decide.”


The debate featured a team of officials from the Austin Water Utility and representatives of four environmental groups that are part of a coalition opposing the plant. Speakers came replete with charts, graphs, sound bites and statistics. The speakers got into the nitty-gritty, sometimes painstaking details, to support their positions. Some of it appeared to be new. Much of it had been heard before.


“I think the council has seen all the arguments on both sides, so not a lot of new information came out tonight,” said Council Member Bill Spelman. “The real value of it is that people who hadn’t had a chance to hear the arguments got a chance to see a real good representation of the arguments on both sides.”


Moderating the event was Jim Walker, chair of Envision Central Texas and sustainability director at The University of Texas at Austin. Walker kept the debate moving, lively and civil. The only heated exchange, and it was brief, came when Daryl Slusher, the Austin Water Utility’s assistant director for environmental affairs and conservation, and Bill Bunch, executive director of Save Our Springs Alliance got into a discussion of alternative sources of water, such as groundwater in counties east of Austin.


Walker said he was pleased with the tone of the debate, civility on the dais and from the audience. He said he would like to see forums like last night’s for big issues the city must decide in the future—only earlier in the process.


Judging by the occasional applause, the audience appeared to be fairly evenly split on the issue, with a mix of young and old, suits and sandals, city staff, and consultants. The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and the environmental community made significant efforts to get people out for the debate, and it worked.


Austin Water Utility Director Greg Meszaros led off the discussion summarizing the benefits of building the plant. The plant should be considered not by itself but as part of a total operating water system, he said. The plant is intended to take over providing water to northern areas of the service area, including developments planned or under way in the desired development zone, he said.


The plant is to be built on 92 acres in Northwest Austin at the southwest corner of FM 620 and Bullick Hollow Road. Its first phase, capable of producing 50 million gallons of treated water a day, is estimated to cost $508 million. City staff wants to have it operating in early 2014. 


Meszaros listed a number of other benefits of the plant, including providing increased reliability, in that the city’s two other water plants are 40 and 55 years old. Since the new plant will be built on Lake Travis – the other two plants are on Lake Austin – there would be increased assurance that customers would continue to get water if Lake Austin were contaminated by a spill, for example, he said. Having adequate treatment capacity with the third plant also would help encourage prospective new employers to locate in Austin, he added.


“We believe the time is right to build this plant at the total lowest cost and total lowest rates,” Meszaros said, pointing out that the current economic downturn has resulted in significantly lower bids for projects because contractors are eager for the work. For example, he said, an initial low bid that just came in for early construction work on the new water plant was $1.6 million below the $4.7 million that engineers estimated it would cost.


Meszaros also argued that the new plant would emit fewer greenhouse gases than the current plants.


Reminding attendees what can happen if a community waits too long to build needed facilities, Meszaros showed a mid-1980s Austin American-Statesman story about the city stopping new sewer hookups because inadequate wastewater treatment facilities were polluting the Colorado River.


Next up was Colin Clark of Save Our Springs Alliance. Clark argued that the new plant is not needed in 2014, as the water utility claims, and could be delayed indefinitely if the city were to be more aggressive about water conservation, efficiency and reuse.


Conservation efforts already under way have had an effect, Clark said, pointing out that Austin’s all-time peak use record, 240 million gallons, occurred in August 2001. Despite record hot, dry summers in 2008 and 2009, and the addition of 100,000 people to the area since 2001, peak demands were 219 million gallons a day in 2008 and 228 million gallons a day this year so far, he said.


“There is a critical shift happening. We are beginning to embrace conservation and we are just beginning,” Clark said. ”We can be the most water-efficient city in Texas if we commit to it.”


But Clark argued that the city is not going to make the kind of commitment to conservation that is needed if it goes through with building Water Treatment Plant 4, which will cost ratepayers $1 billion, when interest on borrowing money to pay for the plant is included. The city will need ratepayers to use more water, not less, in order to pay off the cost of the plant, he noted.


“Water Treatment Plant 4 is the biggest gamble that Austin could make with water,” Clark said. “Let’s address efficiency, conservation and reuse and save $1billion and create jobs to save water and money.”


The issue of a new water plant has been on and off the table in Austin since 1979, according to city officials. The city’s two existing plants, Davis and Ullrich, are 55 and 40 years old respectively, and a third plant, Green, built initially in 1925, was shut down last year. While far from decrepit, the existing plants would need to be upgraded and expanded, if the new plant were not built, according to Meszaros. 


WTP 4 opponent Brian Rodgers of Change Austin said Austin Water Utility officials put out misleading information on the Davis and Ullrich plants to suggest that they are old, rusting and outmoded when in fact they have been modernized over the years. Rodgers said this was part of a scare tactic to justify the need for WTP 4.


Also, Rodgers and others questioned why the city would shut down the Green plant if water utility officials thought that the city was running reliability risks by only having two operational plants.


“The city did not have to shut down Green,” Rodgers said. “Instead it chose to close the plant to do a real estate deal.”


Teresa Lutes, manager of system planning at the Austin Water Utility, said the Green plant was a very old facility that would have been very costly to upgrade.


Meszaros said the city has been pushing its two existing water plants to their limits, with the Davis plant routinely pumping above 90 percent capacity this summer.


“It has been 40 years since we built a water treatment plant from scratch, the longest time in our history,” Meszaros said. “It is imperative that we manage the risk of a failing infrastructure.”


Channel 6, the city’s municipal television station, will broadcast the meeting at 6pm tonight and at 9am Saturday, as well as at Noon and 10pm Sunday.

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