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Auditor’s report seals deal to complete WTP4 project

Thursday, September 22, 2011 by Michael Kanin

After 30 years of delays, heated debate, and accusations related to both environmental damage and financial laxity, Water Treatment Plant 4 appears headed for completion. Council Members Bill Spelman and Chris Riley, and Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole made the announcement in a press release that made clear they would not stand in the way of completion on the facility.


Cole, a steadfast supporter of the plant, is chair of the Audit and Finance Committee, which includes Spelman and Council Members Kathie Tovo and Laura Morrison. City Auditor Kenneth Mory told the committee Wednesday that at least $100 million of costs estimated for deferring completion of the plant for five years and at least $155 million of costs estimated for a 10-year deferral are “reasonable.”


Mory’s staff did their audit in response to a request from the committee to review an analysis performed by engineers at CDM (Camp Dresser McKee). The engineers determined that it would take as much as $138 million for a five-year deferral, and $206 million for a 10-year break. The plant, estimated to cost $508 million, is scheduled to be operational in 2014.


The audit report does not dispute any of CDM’s analysis, saying auditors were “not representing that costs for which we did not find sufficient independent evidence may not be incurred.”


Spelman, who led the charge in seeking the review, said he had heard enough.


“We won’t need water from this plant for years, and we started it too soon. None of that has changed,” he said. “But now that we’re part way done, it’s also clear that the only fiscally responsible thing to do is to finish this project.”


Two of the most outspoken opponents of WTP4, Bill Bunch with the Save Our Springs Alliance and Roy Waley with the local Sierra Club, were very upset with the decision.


“I’m very disappointed,” Bunch said, “especially that our friends on the Council would announce their decision based on a report that wasn’t even made public to anyone before we had a chance to talk with them about it.”


Waley said the group would still fight for changes in the project’s Jollyville transmission main.


“This has always been about two very important issues: conservation and the affordability of water, and the (Balcones Canyonlands Preserve), the damage this will do to the headwaters of Bull Creek,” Waley said. “If they are going to go hell-bent-for-leather to build this plant, then at a very minimum, they need to reroute the transmission line from the plant to the Jollyville reservoir and avoid this very sensitive environmental area.”


After the presentation, Spelman told In Fact Daily that this marked the end of the final obstacle for plant completion. “This is probably the last time we’re going to have to debate whether or not we build Water Treatment Plant 4,” he said.


Morrison and Tovo also said that the costs of mothballing work on the facility outweighed those of allowing its completion. Morrison, Spelman, and Riley formerly constituted a three-vote block that steadily raised its hand against all things Water Treatment Plant 4. Tovo, also a plant opponent, defeated former Place 3 Council Member Randi Shade in a campaign that was peppered with references about the facility.


Council Members vowed to keep watch over the environmental concerns that have fueled three decades of debate on the plant. Morrison told her colleagues that she had “serious concerns about the Jollyville” line that will connect the plant to the rest of Austin’s water infrastructure.


“We still need to answer some of the environmental questions that have been raised about the Jollyville transmission line,” Morrison said. “We also need to look at fair rate structures in the future, so that folks who are moving here can help pay for it.”


She said it was a little odd to be endorsing WTP4 after opposing it earlier.  


“It’s a strange position to be in, in a way, because I believe it was the wrong decision that we made several years ago going forward,” she said. “However, to be pragmatic, the way the numbers came out in this report – it tells me that we do need to move on.”


Tovo said, “I’ve always said that had I been on Council I wouldn’t have voted for it. I think we could have waited before undertaking such a costly infrastructure project, but I always committed to the public that I would always protect the taxpayers, and the best way to protect their investment was to move forward.” 


Spelman also looked to the future. “There will certainly be discussions about things before this that have been subsidiary,” he said. “What kind of conservation support are we going to give? What are we going to do about reclamation? That starts to come up as an important issue.”


Spelman turned to the underlying debate. “That would be something I would prefer for us to be doing instead of Water Treatment Plant 4,” he continued. “But, we’re building Water Treatment Plant 4 instead. Let’s make the best of it and turn our attention to conservation and reclamation as quickly as we can.”


Austin Water Utility Director Greg Meszaros told In Fact Daily that his organization would take measures to make sure that the Jollyville main would have as little environmental impact as possible.


The business community was happy with the decision to move forward on the project. Jeremy Martin with the Austin Chamber of Commerce said WTP4 and other infrastructure projects are critical to Austin’s future.


“When it comes to infrastructure, when we survey our members, their biggest concerns are traffic, lack of public transportation, ensuring a competitive cost of doing business here,” he said. “But they also want to have the long term resources they need so that they have a predictable climate in which to do business.”

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