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Shade to provide critical fourth vote for WTP 4

Tuesday, October 20, 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. 

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. “All sides have made good cases, but in terms of treatment capacity I think we’re on the horizon of needing more capacity.”

At the same time, Shade vowed to push for stronger water conservation goals for the city, and 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.

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, is estimated to cost $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 (SOS) Alliance made renewed attacks this week against the plant, arguing again that the plant is too expensive and is not needed. The SOS Alliance is one of a coalition of environmental and other groups opposing the plant.

On Monday, Save Our Springs Alliance Executive Director Bill 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 decisionmaking, 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 she informed representatives of the Save Our Springs Alliance of her decision to vote for the plant in a meeting with them on Tuesday morning.

Meanwhile, the SOS Alliance 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.   

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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