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No Water Treatment Plant report expected this week

Friday, August 19, 2011 by Michael Kanin

Combatants in the battle over the construction of Water Treatment Plant 4 will have to wait for as long as a week to debate the costs of mothballing that effort. That news came Wednesday evening in a memo from Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza.


However, that date is still somewhat up in the air. Indeed, some estimates have the numbers ready by the middle of next week. Others say they could be ready as early as Monday.


Garza’s memo was matter-of-fact. “During the discussion prior to approval of the resolution by the City Council, I informed you that our goal would be to complete the analysis by the target date of Aug. 18, 2011; however, we would ensure that we provide you the most accurate and comprehensive data possible, even if that meant we would require more time,” he wrote Council members.


Garza continued on to call the effort “very complex.” He noted that the consulting firm handling the job, Camp, Dresser, McKee (CDM), “has notified us that they have gathered all the necessary information, and performed much of the analysis” but that “they have not completed all the necessary analysis and require more time.”


“They just needed more time,” Garza told In Fact Daily. “When they finish their work they have an internal quality assurance process that they go through…and that had not been completed.”


Council members seemed to take the delay in stride. Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole told In Fact Daily that it was important “that we have gone through the process to authenticate the numbers, put them to an independent source and present them to the public.”


Cole chairs the City Council’s Audit and Finance Committee, which has pressed for the CDM review to be examined by the City Auditor’s office. Council Member Laura Morrison, who also serves on that committee, echoed Cole’s thoughts. “Obviously the sooner, the better,” she said. “On the other hand, it is a pretty enormous task, so it doesn’t seem unreasonable that they’re going to need a few more days.”


“Rudy Garza had said he would try but he couldn’t make any guarantees,” said Mayor Lee Leffingwell about the Aug. 18 due date for the report. “It was simply a matter of plowing through a lot of work and trying to get it right. And I expect it within the next few days, possibly Monday.”


Council Member Kathie Tovo agreed. “Staff had made a clear that they might slide that date,” she said. “This was the earliest that I expected it.”


After three decades, the debate over the construction of the plant is set to come down to the CDM analysis. In it, the firm is expected to detail the costs that the city would incur if it decides to shutter construction for five or ten years. Last week, Council Member Bill Spelman – with the support of the Council’s Audit and Finance Committee – asked the City Auditor’s Office to analyze the report and its assumptions. City Auditor Kenneth Mory said his group would need a couple of weeks to analyze that report, meaning he is not likely to respond before Labor Day, September 5. 


Spelman, Morrison, and Council Member Chris Riley have repeatedly voted against items that would forward the construction of the plant. However, Spelman has signaled a willingness to continue forward with construction if the numbers in the study illustrate that a work stoppage would be too costly.


Should the rest of the dais math remain unchanged, a Spelman vote against a work stoppage would be enough to keep things moving along in Northwest Travis County.


Meanwhile, a Thursday editorial in the Austin American-Statesman raised the question of how long the city’s aging water infrastructure can continue to produce reliable service without some level of relief. “The city now relies on two plants for treating water. One was built in 1954 and the other in 1969. The life span of a water treatment plant is 50 years — another number to toss into the mix,” wrote the paper’s editorial board.


Water officials have said that the construction of the new plant would allow them the flexibility to partially shut down one of their other facilities for much needed repairs.


Plant opponents continue to argue that funds for the new facility might be better spent on pipe repairs. Their point was punctuated on Thursday afternoon by a major water main break that closed northbound Airport Boulevard for a spell.


The Council has suspended the issuance of documents that would allow not-yet-approved work to move forward at the site until Sept. 2. That date could be pushed back, should the Council need more time to deliberate.

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