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Mark Richardson is a multimedia journalist, editor and writer who has worked in digital, print and broadcast media for three decades. He is a nationally recognized editor and reporter who has covered government, politics and the environment. A journalism graduate from the University of Texas at Austin, he was recently awarded a Foundation for Investigative Journalism grant and has three Associated Press Managing Editors awards for excellence in reporting.
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Plan for WTP4 transmission mains draws fire from citizens
The city’s plan to construct a pair of transmission mains from the planned Water Treatment Plant 4 near Lake Travis is drawing opposition from residents of some northwest Austin neighborhoods. The homeowners say that even though the water pipes will be built underground, they are worried about getting the shaft.
City officials have been planning the water treatment plant project off and on since 1984. It is scheduled to begin operations in 2014, pumping water up from Lake Travis, treating it, and sending it to the west and northwest areas of Austin.
The Austin Water Utility, which is the lead agency on the project, is planning to build one 84-inch-wide, 7-mile-long tunnel from the WTP4 site to the Jollyville reservoir, and a 54-inch, 2-mile-long tunnel to the Forest Ridge reservoir. The routes for both transmission mains run underneath parts of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, land set aside for the preservation of several endangered species.
Environmental groups such as the Save Our Springs Alliance and the local Sierra Club also oppose the treatment plant and its transmission mains, claiming the project is too expensive, dangerous to the environment, and not needed.
Residents of the Lampasas Trail neighborhood in Northwest Austin were among the more than 100 people who showed up at a public meeting Tuesday night at the Concordia University campus to discuss the project. Many of the residents expressed concerns about construction noise, truck traffic, and the potential location of the tunnel’s access shafts in their neighborhood.
Water Utility Director Greg Meszaros said the current plan is to dig the entire length of the transmission lines beneath the ground, building access shafts at several points along the way on both tunnels.
“We plan to use boring equipment that will dig the tunnels about 70 feet under the ground,” he said. “They won’t disturb anything on the surface, whether it’s a neighborhood or the wildlife preserve. There will be minimal disruption to anyone living near the construction.”
Meszaros said that once completed, the access shafts would leave only a small concrete slab with a locked entrance about the size of a manhole. He said that the city would only use the access once or twice a year when the tunnels needed maintenance.
However, several residents who live near the planned site of one of the planned access shafts disagreed – sometimes loudly – with Meszaros, saying that digging the shaft will fill their neighborhood with construction noise and heavy truck traffic for at least a year and a half.
Sharon Blythe, who lives on Spicewood Springs Road near the planned shaft site, said she and her neighbors don’t believe the city’s claim that the disruption will be minimal.
“The contractor will be bringing all the dirt and rock out from that tunnel underground to the surface right at my neighborhood’s entrance,” she said. “That’s going to cause numerous traffic problems out here. It will also be dangerous for those trucks to be traveling near the school.” Blythe lives near Canyon Vista Middle School.
Others from the area registered similar concerns about the potential disruptiveness of the construction. The dialogue between Meszaros and the group was contentious at times and turned hostile when the water utility director said he wanted to quit taking questions because his “feet were tired.”
That did not sit well with the most of the crowd.
“These folks deserve answers to their questions, and I think you should stay as long as you need to do that,” said Roy Waley of the Austin Sierra Club. “This project is going to disturb their lives for an extended period of time and they deserve answers. “
Meszaros relented and continued taking question for about another hour. He made several other points about the projects:
· The transmission mains will save the city electricity it now uses to pump water up to the west and northwest parts of the city by using gravity to send the water to distribution reservoirs.
· Tunneling the entire distances from the WTP4 site to the reservoirs is a much more expensive way to get the water there but will ultimately mean less disruption to environmentally sensitive areas such as the BCP and surrounding areas.
· The entire project is budgeted for about $500 million, but with interest paid for the bands to build it, the final cost could be as high as $1.2 billion.
· Because of the current economy, AWU expects bids for construction of WTP4 and the transmission mains to come in well below (as much as 50 percent) what they would see in a normal economy.
Even though last week’s meeting was the final public forum on the transmission mains that the AWU had scheduled, Meszaros said that city officials will continue to meet with groups and individuals to discuss the plant up to and through the construction process.
He said the design phase for the project is planned for mid-2010 through mid-2011, with bid awards set for later that year. Construction is planned for late 2011 through spring 2014, when the plant is scheduled to go online.
For more information about the project, go to http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/water/wtpfour.htm.
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