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Opposition continues to stalk progress of WTP4 project’s construction

Tuesday, March 2, 2010 by Michael Kanin

After decades of debate, work on building Water Treatment Plant 4 for the city of Austin continues to inch forward. The latest progress for the controversial facility came last Thursday when the City Council voted 4-3 to authorize $6 million for Black & Veatch Corp. to design a transmission main that would carry water from the plant.


Council members Laura Morrison, Bill Spelman, and Chris Riley voted against the proposal. The same trio voted against moving forward with a $3.1 million contract to excavate the water plant’s raw water pump station in October. ( See In Fact Daily Oct. 23, 2009.) 


Greg Meszaros, the director of the Austin Water Utility (AWU) sees the progress as an indication that action on the plant will continue to move forward. “We’re pretty far into this,” he told In Fact Daily. “I hope we can cross the finish line.”


This Wednesday, the Environmental Board will get an update from city staff on the plant’s progress and it could decide to weigh in again. Board Chair Mary Gay Maxwell wouldn’t speculate about her group’s proceedings.


The facility, known to most Austinites as WTP4, has been a centerpiece in municipal debate for more than three decades. AWU cites Austin’s population growth and the potential energy savings “of enough (energy) to provide electricity to over 16,000 homes for a year” as among its reasons for pressing forward with the project. Opponents argue that city won’t have the capacity demands that warrant another facility, and that its construction could negatively effect the ecology of Bull Creek. 


The portion of the WTP4 infrastructure that came before Council last week is known as the Jollyville Transmission Main. According to AWU, if built, the line would “carry water from (WTP4 in Northwest Austin) to the Jollyville Reservoir located near US 183 and McNeil Road” in a tunnel that would run for seven miles, 50 feet below portions of the Edwards Aquifer.


Meszaros said that the utility had invested “millions and millions” in “environmental considerations” for the project. He added that, despite its ambition, the scale of the project is “not a new endeavor for (the) water or wastewater industries.”


According to a memo that Meszaros sent to the Council, AWU staff “performed a limited analysis of possible shaft locations and tunnel routes to identify potential environmental impacts” of the Jollyville main. For Save Our Springs Alliance (SOS) Executive Director Bill Bunch, this wasn’t enough. “Your staff’s memo on this item…says we looked at four alternatives and we wanted to find the most environmentally sensitive one,” he told the Council. “Well, look at the map: All four alternatives follow 90 percent of the exact same route.”


“That’s not looking at alternatives. That’s not trying to find an environmentally responsible route,” Bunch continued. “That’s finding the route that’s cheapest, most direct, and already subject to approval.”


During the hearing, Council Member Laura Morrison told her colleagues that she had asked city staff to respond to questions about the environmental impact of the Jollyville main. These covered whether or not the city would receive an environmental briefing before they voted on “the large construction contract,” when that might occur, and whether they would “include the environmental analysis of the transmission and intake tunnels”; whether or not the city had “encountered any significant caves or voids on the plant site, at the pump station site, and/or along the tunnel routes”; and asked for an assessment of what threats the project might pose to the Jollyville Plateau Salamander, and how those might be addressed. SOS has proposed an endangered species listing for the salamander.


In its answers, city staff told Council that it would “provide all environmental reports, findings, and analyses on WTP4 as they are finalized.” They also told council that staff would “(bring) forward a request for Council action for construction services within three to four months.”


Though staff acknowledged finding some caves in the process of construction, none have yet been “determined…to be suitable endangered species habitat according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife criteria.” However, staff also noted that “two karst surface features have been found along the Forest Ridge tunnel route within the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve.” The Forest Ridge tunnel is the second of the two planned transmission mains. Construction has yet to begin on either main.


As for the salamander, staff noted that it is “working with the Fish and Wildlife Service to develop an effective conservation strategy…, including development of a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances.” They said that “if approved” that agreement “would cover all City of Austin activities that could potentially affect the Jollyville Plateau Salamander, including the WTP4 transmission mains, regardless of whether and when the species is listed as endangered.”


Despite the steadier progress of the WTP4 project, Bunch doesn’t consider it inevitable. He tells In Fact Daily that March to May or June slip in the timing of the construction phase of the tunnels, represents an opportunity for WTP 4 opponents. “The schedule is slipping and that gives us more time to make (our) case,” he says.

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