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Shade signals she’ll support new water plant

Wednesday, October 21, 2009 by Austin Monitor

A continuing campaign by opponents of Water Treatment Plant 4 failed to sway City Council Member Randi Shade, who says she will vote on Thursday to support the controversial plant. Plant opponents are disappointed but say they will continue to fight. 

Shade’s support is expected to provide the fourth – and majority – vote needed for the City Council to move forward with initial plant construction. Thursday’s Council vote is on a $3.1 million contract to excavate the plant’s raw water pump station and associated storm water controls. The contract would be the first major construction for the project.

“The reasons why I’m supporting the plant are recognition that the other two (water treatment) plants are aging and our city is growing,” Shade told In Fact Daily. “We need treated water supply, the best technology, and to have a state-of-the-art water system to deal with our desired development zone and our northern community members.

“All sides have made good cases, but in terms of treatment capacity I think we’re on the horizon of needing more capacity.” It was Shade who insisted on the September 17 debate between supporters and opponents of the plant.

Shade also vowed to push for stronger water conservation goals for the city and said she will work to ensure that the Austin Water Utility carries out an aggressive water conservation program. “We need to conserve. We need to do a much more innovative and aggressive job of that.” She said she would address that need from the dais on Thursday.

Reflecting on Shade’s decision last night, Save Our Springs (SOS) Alliance Executive Director Bill Bunch told In Fact Daily, “Of course we’re disappointed but we’re not going to give up; we’ll be there on Thursday, making as strong a case as we can. This world is changing, and a plant from the last millennium makes no sense environmentally, financially, or socially, and we’ll keep going (against it) until it’s built.

“All of the Council has said they’re serious about conservation, but if you crunch the numbers (it doesn’t) add up: trying to expand your water-producing factory at the cost of over a half a billion dollars at the same time you say you want to sell less water — it just doesn’t make sense. The AWU has still not come clean and said, ‘Here’s how much water we’re expecting to sell in the next 20 years and here’s the rate structure.’ In my view, responsible leadership says you have that information before you make those kinds of decisions, rather than after.”

Meanwhile, Council Members Laura Morrison, Chris Riley, and Bill Spelman, who had voiced concerns about the plant, issued a statement late Tuesday, saying that regardless of Thursday’s vote they will bring forward a resolution directing the city manager to create an Integrated Water Management Plan.

“The Plan will identify goals to position Austin as a national leader in water conservation by 2020 and will address such issues as demand, drought, regional supply, sustainable resources, and infrastructure management,” they said.

They also stated that if the majority of the Council votes for the plant on Thursday, they will bring forward another resolution directing the city manager “to explore ways to mitigate the expected rate increases, especially for low-to-moderate-income households and small businesses.” 

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, would cost an estimated $508 million. The Austin Water Utility wants to have it operating in early 2014. Plans for a new plant have been in the works for almost three decades.

The latest announcements from council members came as the Save Our Springs Alliance made renewed attacks this week against the plant, arguing again that it is too expensive and not needed. The SOS Alliance is part of a coalition of environmental and other groups opposing the plant.

On Monday, Bunch sent a six-page letter to the Council reiterating his group’s environmental, financial, and technical opposition.

“Building WTP4 at this time cannot be squared with reasoned, well-informed decision making, with either fiscal or environmental responsibility, with any significant commitment to water security, or with any serious commitment to making Austin a leader in sustainability and clean technology,” Bunch wrote.

“Here is one final question: if you move forward with WTP4, what will go unfunded?  We have limited spending and borrowing capacity,” the letter continued. “What opportunities will be lost as a result of sinking a half billion dollars into a plant we do not need?  Where are the funds for the green collar jobs needed to make sure every small business, every school, hospital and office, and every unit of affordable housing has water and energy efficient appliances and services? Where is the funding for conservation measures that specifically target the most wasteful water uses and most wasteful water users? Where is the funding to quickly expand our reclaimed water system and replace our old failing pipes? Where are the funds to buy pumping rights and watershed preserve lands so that Barton Springs will not be pumped dry or polluted by sprawl development? “

Shade told In Fact Daily that she informed representatives of the SOS Alliance of her decision to vote for the plant in a meeting with them on Tuesday morning.

Meanwhile, the group sent out an e-mail to constituents on Tuesday afternoon urging them to sign up at the Council meeting on Thursday in opposition to the plant. “The vote could go either way, and your presence on Thursday can help make a difference,” the e-mail stated.

Also on Tuesday, SOS helped organize a news conference in which leaders of three groups, the Austin Neighborhoods Council, Liveable City, and the Gray Panthers of Austin, voiced opposition to the plant. Both the Austin Neighborhoods Council and the Liveable City group were armed with resolutions urging the City Council to put off any further investment in the water plant until it can be considered as part of the city’s comprehensive planning process.   

After learning of Shade’s decision, Mark Yznaga of Liveable City said, “We think the Council is going to make a big mistake. By them building it now, it’s going to cost the public hundreds and hundreds of dollars and the Council seems not very sensitive to the public purse. People are hurting.”

David Foster, executive director of Clean Water Action and a member of the Liveable City board, has also opposed the plant. On Tuesday, he said, “I think there is a case to be made for the plant, which is servicing those parts of north Austin, the Robinson Ranch area and so forth, long term. I believe though that we should first invest in conservation and get the most mileage out of that before spending money on a new treatment plant — so we would have those dollars available for conservation. The average level of consumption is falling; I don’t think it’s going to be where the city says it’s going to be. I think we’ll save money in the long run by putting off building the water treatment plant.”

But not all of the comments that the Council got this week were negative. In an e-mail to the Council on Tuesday, Gene Austin, vice chairman of education and talent development for the Austin Chamber of Commerce, urged the Council to vote for the water plant.

“Planning for our future water needs requires action today,” said Austin, chief executive officer at Convio. “A comprehensive water strategy for the city must include conservation, increased use of reclaimed water, and construction of a new water treatment plant. Relying on aging infrastructure is too risky given the potential consequences of system failure.”

The Austin Chamber of Commerce and the Real Estate Council of Austin put out action alerts to get their members involved. Both groups stressed the need for an additional plant in order to provide a continued reliable supply of clean water. They also said they support conservation efforts. Scores of e-mails in support of the plant began to roll into City Council mailboxes Tuesday afternoon under the subject line “We want water.”

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