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Parks Board delays decision on proposed shaft site

Thursday, October 28, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

On Tuesday evening, the Parks and Recreation Board voted unanimously to delay making a recommendation on the approval of both permanent and temporary use of parkland within the Upper Bull Creek Greenbelt by the Austin Water Utility. The utility would use the site, located at Spicewood Springs Road and Old Lampasas Trail, for the installation of a retrieval shaft and piping as part of the city’s Water Treatment Plant 4 project.


The board’s decision came after several months of research and deliberation and a long work session with utility staff last Friday, capped off by Tuesday’s five-hour meeting. Board members decided they would not make a recommendation on the proposed shaft site to City Council before the completion of an environmental assessment and before the current mitigation package is improved by city staff.


Meanwhile, a utility official confirmed with In Fact Daily yesterday that the utility is considering bringing the item before Council even without a Parks Board recommendation. The utility does not need approval from the Parks Board to take proposals before Council.


The current recommendation is to install a retrieval shaft at the Bull Creek site. The project would entail sinking the shaft, retrieving the tunnel machines upon completion, installing piping, and performing grout work. All told, utility staff said, the project would require about 400 days of active construction.


At a meeting earlier in the month, the board’s Land, Facilities, and Programs Committee voted to send the proposed plan to the full board without recommendation, arguing that there were too many questions that the utility and its director, Greg Meszaros, still needed to answer about potential environmental effects. These questions included concerns about the impact of the project on the habitat of the Golden-cheeked Warbler.


At Tuesday’s meeting, Meszaros aimed to convince board members that, despite the fact that the proposed solution is “not perfect,” he believes it best balances and addresses concerns about community impacts, environmental impacts, scheduling and constructability.


“We’re a public utility, a public agency, all under the city manager, all under the same legal team that advises you,” he said. “And we’re going to execute this project properly and work in partnership with the community and with our staff to get this done properly.”


He said that the utility has clear property and legal rights, that the site is fully mitigated for the Golden-cheeked Warbler, and that the utility has already done a great deal to alter its plans in order to reduce environmental impacts on the parkland. “We’ve reconfigured our project to remove the tunneling, or mucking operations, away from this site, reducing the number of truck trips and construction days,” he said.


Residents, neighborhood representatives, and environmental leaders were unconvinced, however, both by Meszaros’ claims and by the need for WTP4 in general. Many asked the board to slow down and consider any information before making their decision. One resident, Linda Strickland, said that there are “still too many unanswered questions” about easements and permanent use agreements for her comfort. “How can anyone expect you, as the stewards of a significant preserve, which is one of Austin’s treasures, to vote yes or no on a project without all the information?” she asked the board.


Meanwhile, Save Our Springs Alliance Executive Director Bill Bunch said, “There’s no need to rush to makes sure it’s done by 2014. The city’s own data shows that we won’t need additional treatment capacity until 2025-30. Certainly there’s no rush to have this plant on line by 2014.”


But Meszaros responded by saying that the shaft plan was developed in response to a City Council policy directive calling for WTP4 and its transmission structure to be functional by 2014. “We don’t think this is premature,” he told the board.


Another resident, Warren Johnson, who has a background in civil engineering, said that the retrieval shaft would not be an appropriate use of the property. He proposed an alternative plan, under which the site would be used only for a ventilation shaft. Johnson said such a plan would mean the difference between a hole six to eight feet in diameter and one 30 feet in diameter.


When Board Member Jerry Perales asked Meszaros if he and his staff had considered the ventilation shaft plan, the director said they had evaluated it as an alternative but determined that it would be costlier, riskier, and more difficult than the utility-proposed plan.


“We estimated that (the ventilation shaft) would cost $10 to 15 million more because it would be more difficult to construct the tunnel,” Meszaros said. “We would have to disassemble the boring machines or back them out…By not being able to install piping at that location, we would have to bring the piping in from the far end of the tunnel. It’s difficult and risky dragging piping through tunnels for three to four miles.”


In the end, board members’ biggest concern appeared to be with the proposed mitigation package that is part of the current plan. Under that package, the Austin Water Utility would pay the Parks and Recreation Department $116,103.62 for use of the Bull Creek site for 900 calendar days, a figure many on the board found absurd.


Board Member Jeff Francell called the figure “woefully inadequate,” while Carol Lee said she was “extremely disappointed, almost insulted” by it. “Two and a half years can seem like an eternity when it’s affecting your sleep and your concentration and family life,” Lee said. “We really need to look at the community and give them a vision, and participation, in what they would like to see so that they can have something to look forward to.”

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