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Water/Wastewater panel backs excavation project for WTP4

Friday, October 16, 2009 by Bill McCann

Plans for Water Treatment Plant 4 took a step forward this week, in advance of a key vote by the Austin City Council next week on the controversial plant.


The city’s Water and Wastewater Commission on Wednesday recommended that the Council approve a $3.1 million contract with Ranger Excavation, LP of Austin to excavate the plant’s raw water pump station and associated storm water controls. The contract, which includes digging about 125,000 cubic yards of material, would be the first major construction for the plant.


While the Council could stop the plant later, approval of this contract would be a big step in the plant’s favor. They are scheduled to consider the Ranger Excavation contract on Oct. 22. (A second contract, covering excavation at the plant itself, is expected to be ready for Council consideration on Nov. 19.)


At Wednesday’s meeting, Commissioner Sarah Faust sought to postpone the commission’s vote on the Ranger Excavation contract until the Austin Water Utility staff briefs the commission on the project’s water transmission mains. Her motion to postpone a vote failed, with only Commissioner Aaron Googins supporting her.


The commission then voted 4 to 2 in favor of the contract on the motion of Commissioner Chien Lee, with Googins and Faust opposed. Googins is Council Member Bill Spelman’s appointee to the commission, and Faust, who has worked for the Save Our Springs Alliance, a plant opponent, is Council Member Laura Morrison’s appointee. (The seven-person commission currently has one vacancy, awaiting appointment by Council Member Chris Riley.)


Council members Spelman, Morrison and Riley have raised concerns about building the plant at this time, while Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez and Council Member Sheryl Cole have been strong supporters. Council Member Randi Shade, who is expected to announce her position on Monday, is considered the swing vote. 


The betting by City Hall observers is that Shade will support the plant after studying the issue for months. She and the rest of the Council sat through a detailed debate between supporters and opponents in September. For one thing, observers point out that Water and Wastewater Commission Chair Mario Espinoza, Shade’s appointee to the commission, voted in favor of the excavation contract on Wednesday. 


However, plant opponents say a vote by an advisory commission, or an individual member, does not necessarily portend how council members will vote. Opponents say they plan to attend next week’s council meeting to argue their position that the plant is not needed, that it would burden residential ratepayers, and that water conservation is a much more viable and affordable alternative.


Acknowledging that Shade “appears to be leaning in favor of the plant,” Bill Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, one of a coalition of groups fighting the plant, said opponents have no intention of giving up. “We will certainly be continuing to develop information and present it to the Council,” Bunch said. “The real construction on the plant itself is not scheduled until January 2011. So we are not at the end of this fight. We are in the middle.” 


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. 


Utility officials argue that the plant is needed for many reasons, including providing an alternative to two aging existing water treatment plants, expanding and improving service to a growing northern part of the service area, and meeting future long-term demands for water in a growing community.


One point that opponents will continue to hammer home, Bunch said, is that residential ratepayers could be stuck with enormous rate increases to pay for the plant, particularly if the region faces an extended drought. Due to the drought, the city has imposed water restrictions that have resulted in a 20 percent drop in water use. While that is good news for customers, it means less revenue for the utility, Bunch said. Since the costs to build the plant are fixed, lower revenues will require higher rates to finance the plant, he said.


“What is the rate structure really going to look like for residents in future years if water sales are not what has been predicted ?” Bunch said. “The utility is going to have to come clean with real numbers, but we have not seen them yet.”


Meanwhile, the Clean Water Fund, a national organization with an office in Austin, yesterday issued a report concluding that Central Texas is likely to experience serious long-term water shortages as population increases and the effects of drought and climate change hit the region. The report, prepared by David Foster, the fund’s Texas program director and an opponent of WTP 4, acknowledges that cities like Austin and Round Rock have taken steps to conserve water, but it says much more needs to be done. 


Among other things, the report recommends that Central Texas cities postpone plans to build new drinking water treatment plants until ambitious water conservation programs have been implemented. The report is available at

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