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Water utility highlights WTP4 progress

Monday, July 11, 2011 by Michael Kanin

The Austin Water Utility fired its first defensive shot in what could be the city’s final battle over the fate of the city’s new water treatment plant, known for years as Water Treatment Plant 4.


On Friday, officials from the utility, its main contractor for the project, and the engineering firm behind its design gathered more than 30 members of the local media for a tour of the site. The message intended for broadcast was clear: It’s too late to turn back. Since the city shut down the outdated Green Water Treatment Plant on Lady Bird Lake several years ago, Austin has only two plants that are currently operating.


Media attending included representatives from local NPR affiliate KUT, KLBJ-AM, all of the local television stations including Austin’s Univision affiliate, the Austin American-Statesman, Community Impact, the Austin Chronicle, and this publication. As of Sunday morning, at least KXAN, YNN, KLBJ and the Statesman had produced some form of coverage of the status of the plant. Austin Water spokesperson Jason Hill told In Fact Daily that he expects each of the outlets that had yet to feature something from Friday to eventually include portions of the tour in a report.


The Austin City Council approved a massive appropriation for the plant last November. At the time, the funds seemed to solidify the idea that the long-controversial project would be completed. Their action, as with other recent votes on the plant, was split 4-3, with then-Council Member Randi Shade voting for the measure.


In her recent successful campaign against Shade for the Place 3 seat, former planning commissioner Kathie Tovo tried her best to avoid discussion about whether or not she would seek to halt construction. Still, she won the backing of many members of the environmental community including leading members of the Save Our Springs Alliance and the local Sierra Club.


Tovo remained non-committal on the campaign trail, where she tended to remind voters that she wouldn’t have voted to start the plant, but would keep the best financial interests of the city in mind, should some form of reconsideration occur.


Indeed, the city’s investment-to-date may be the best shot the Water Utility has at avoiding a shutdown along Bullock Hollow Road. So far, the utility has committed nearly $200 million to the project – and roughly one-third of the council’s November allocation. That figure grows each day as the construction continues to form more-and-more recognizable structures.


According to project team members, it could be costly if the council votes to stop the plant. “I don’t know if I could give a real sound summary of what that would take,” said Carollo Engineers project manager Tim Tekippe. “There are certainly parts of the project – like you can see – that are very far along and there’s equipment that goes in these structures that you can’t see that’s been purchased.”


“In order to get the project to a point where it could be put on hold without risking corrosion and damage to the things that have been built already – there’s a certain amount of effort that it would take to figure out how to do that, pay the contractors to do that,” he continued. “You’d have to look forward to how you would restart.”


Tekippe adds that he’s never worked on a project where construction was forced to a halt. “I haven’t been on a construction project that has been stopped in the middle of construction,” he said. “That would be pretty rare for a public works project.”


Project engineer Bill Stauber echoed those sentiments. “This is such a fluid project, things are starting every day,” he said. “As you can see today, the site’s opened up all over the place it would take quite a bit of effort … to button things up.”


“It would definitely be costly,” he added.

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