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Drought, WTP 4, shootings and more highlight 2009 stories

Tuesday, December 22, 2009 by Mark Richardson

For Part 1 of the story see Dec. 21, 2009.

Central and South Texas suffered through two years of one of the most severe droughts on record, with Lake Travis dropping to levels close to the “Drought of Record” reached in the 1950s.

And with the drought as a backdrop, the never-ending battle over building Water Treatment Plan 4 continued. Environmental groups, including the Save Our Springs Alliance and Sierra Club continued to push city officials to delay the project, saying conservation could buy Austin several more years without the facility.

But in October, Council members voted 4-3 to essentially give the plan a “go ahead,” with Council Member Randi Shade playing the pivotal role.

“I did feel it was really important for people on all sides to have had to make the opportunity to make their case,” she said. “The issue put us on the hot seat, but it was the largest infrastructure project we will ever vote on in our career. It certainly was helpful for us to deliberate the way we did. Also, I think it was handled in a civil manner and I appreciate that, especially when you see the way things have been handled across the county. We saw some unprecedented bad behavior by all,” Shade said, noting uncivil language from members of Congress as well as the public. She said it was important for the public to see that making decisions like that is not easy but it was a good debate. But she’s ready for things to calm down. “In 2010, I’m looking forward to having a year without an election,” she said.

Mayor Lee Leffingwell said that after the city’s budget problems. the biggest story of the year was the vote to move forward with the construction of WTP 4, noting that it was the culmination of more than 25 years of negotiations.

“I believe the voters (originally) approved funding for the plant in 1984,” Leffingwell told In Fact Daily . “This has been a long process; it’s actually been going on ever since I’ve been on the council. The city’s initial water conservation efforts actually grew out of a desire to be able to build Water Treatment Plant 4 and forgo building another plant. We figured if we did good water conservation we could eliminate that first step, which was a proposal to build a plant downstream.”

Council Member Chris Riley said the decision on Water Treatment Plant 4 was “made more prominent by the fact that we went through what may be the drought of record; there was a heightened awareness of the need for conservation,” as a backdrop to the plant discussion. “If we have gotten past the big decision point on Water Treatment Plant 4, we haven’t really gotten past the big decision points on conservation, so those issues are gong to still be going on,” he said  Meanwhile, at least one local governmental body, the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, gave its customers some good news last week. The agency’s board voted to declare that the drought is now officially over, as least for the water resource that they are charged with protecting. Lake Travis still needs about 20 more feet of water to reach its full level.

Police shootings and race relations

The shooting of robbery suspect Nathaniel Sanders by an Austin Police officer reopened wounds in the community from earlier incidents, and brought city officials and community leaders together to confront the problem.

Council Member Sheryl Cole points to the officer-involved shooting of the 18-year-old African-American on May 11 and the closing of Highland Mall during the Texas Relays as seminal moments of the year, when the city had to confront some of its lingering racial tensions and make decisions about its identity and character.

“The shooting of Nathaniel Sanders,” Cole told In Fact Daily, “was such a highly charged event because it so closely followed the Kevin Brown shooting of the year before. True crises in the city you’re never truly prepared for, and I think they test the character of the city and the character of the Council. And everyone on the Council stood with me after Sanders was shot. But I wouldn’t say because of that we’ve really improved race relations. The protocol, however, is better set.

“The issue about the street closures and Highland Mall closing down during the Texas Relays generated a lot of concern in the community,” said Cole. “And not just the African-American community but the entire community. Because the idea was that we should be welcoming to tourists and visitors, no matter whether for South by Southwest or the ACL festival or the Texas Relays. That’s what a progressive city does, and Texas Relays shouldn’t be any different.”

Cole said she believes the incident could ultimately be good for the city.

“Since then, I have been surprised at the number of people who have come forward to volunteer countless community hours and who want to be involved in the process. Shortly after the incident, Highland Mall executives flew in and have been working with us. They understand the message from the Council and the mayor and the citizens in general that this is not the kind of Austin we have, and we’re going to do a better job. This is Austin and this is not the way we behave.”

Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez agreed that there were lessons to be learned from both incidents.

“I think the Texas Relays incident got our attention,” he said. “We need to be planning to make sure that all folks are welcome to Austin, Texas, and I fully believe we learned something significant and we’re going to be a better city.”

Martinez said the Sanders shooting presents some difficult problems for city officials.

“Police issues are always difficult,” he said. “It was a tough situation, arguably one of the most difficult issues that we’ve seen. It does take a toll. One of the things I hold near and dear to me as a Council Member is not only achieving strong policy issues, but what seldom gets reported or remembered is bad policy being stopped.”

Another issue of racism arose over the licensing of mobile vendors.

“It seemingly is non-controversial, but you’re talking about an entire community and a work force that folks don’t realize is impacted by decisions that we make,” Martinez said. “What came out in the public testimony, partly what I suspected and the guy said it from the dais — he said ‘taco and tamale stands are just a little too greasy for our neighborhood.’ That to me is—you don’t want to be the person to throw the race card—but when a citizen comes down here and makes public testimony of that nature, you can’t not call it out.”

Other stories, in brief

Major changes at Capital Metro — There were a number of departures from Capital Metro during 2009, including the Dillo Line; General Manager Fred Gilliam; cheap bus fares; Veolia; and the schedule for MetroRail. Arrivals were a little harder to find, though Doug Allen was named as the agency’s interim CEO.

Growth slows with the economy — Sometimes the best way to keep developers from messing up the environment is to wait for the economy to go south. Martinez noted, “We put the Wildflower Commons PUD off until August and because of the downturn, the project went away. There is not a market for it. Otherwise, we were faced with approving something that never would have happened, or potentially something that was worse than what was agreed to in the Bradley agreement.”

Recycling? That’ll cost you – City officials started what by all measures is a successful Single Stream recycling project which increased the amount citizens put in the recycling bin and cut down on the trash. But Solid Waste Services signed a contract that cost the city millions on recycling that was supposed to be sold for a profit. The move (among other things) cost SWS Director Willie Rhode his job. Council members recently voted to re-negotiate the Greenstar contract, promising to pay the company about $2.6 million. Next year, the city is set to launch its own materials recycling facility (MRF).

Pecan St. Project – Some of Austin ‘s better minds got together to launch with the University of Texas and private partners a research and development partnership to develop a “smart grid” in the city. Former Council Member Brewster McCracken will run the project. The project hit its first home run in November when it won a $10.4 million in federal stimulus funding for an advanced smart grid energy demonstration project at the Mueller Development.

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