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Success not totally sweet for head of water utility

Monday, December 17, 2012 by Michael Kanin

A presentation about the success of water conservation programs in Austin was momentarily overshadowed at Thursday’s Council meeting by a return to a discussion about the immediate necessity of Water Treatment Plant 4.


The conversation covered up what appear to be fairly good numbers for the utility. According to Austin Water Utility Director Greg Meszaros’ calculations, local conservation has, to date, put off the onset of a more expensive Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) pricing model for the city by seven years. Meszaros said that the effort would result in roughly $95 million worth of savings.


Council Member Bill Spelman first apologized to Meszaros. He then reminded Meszaros that he and AWU staff had argued that system capacity would have to increase to keep up with population growth. Environmental and consumer activists have long disputed the utility’s contention that plant construction was necessary because of astronomical regional growth.


“I just need to point out that the environmentalists were right, and that you and your staff were wrong,” Spelman said.


Spelman wondered, in what he later called “good-natured grief,” whether Meszaros would like to admit that he was wrong about the capacity needs of the utility. Put in an awkward public situation, Meszaros paused. Then he made a joke.


“One day, I’ll be able to stand up here without Water Plant 4 coming up,” Meszaros said.


He then continued on to partially concede Spelman’s point. “I think that we’re exceeding the (conservation) goals more than I expected, and to the degree that I was wrong about how capable we were at that, I’ll admit that,” Meszaros said.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell later came to the utility’s defense. “Yes, our projections are lower. And it looks like we’re…going to go a little bit longer time as far as the actual capacity need for an additional water plant,” Leffingwell said. “Again, the decision to go build the water plant was based on predictions at that time. Now we have a different prediction. Who knows what it’s going to be in the future?”


“The point is that we do need the water plant,” he continued. “The exact year that we need that capacity is still unknown. It’s better to have it than not to have it.”


Leffingwell also pointed to a host of other reasons – separate from capacity needs – that the city was right to build the plant. Water Treatment Plant 4 is expected to use considerably less energy than the two much older plants, either of which could need to shut down for repairs.


Spelman was among a group of three Council Members who consistently voted against the plant. Leffingwell was on the other side.


Returning to the numbers, Meszaros also noted “excellent progress” in the city’s effort to reduce citywide water consumption below 140 gallons per capita per day by 2020.


Resource Management Commission chair Leo Dielmann joined Meszaros for the presentation. He referenced what has been a sometimes-contentious relationship between his group and the utility.


As part of the briefing Dielmann and Meszaros offered Council Members a list of strategic actions that the utility will engage in as it moves toward its conservation goals. These include a shift in focus “to short term incentives for new water-saving technology and comprehensive changes that save larger water volumes,” the use of regulations to “embed conservation into new development,” and the creation of “programs that target high water users.”


Council Member Laura Morrison noted the potency of the image of Meszaros and Dielmann standing side-by-side. “When staff and an important commission like RMC come to Council with a joint recommendation, it’s very powerful,” she said. “Especially one with the history that you guys have.”


Still, utility critic Paul Robbins remains concerned about the path that he sees the utility on. In early November, Robbins sent Dielmann and the rest of his committee a follow-up to a report he’d issued about the state of the Water Utility in 2011.


The report goes through a host of issues that could be linked to water conservation. It specifically notes concerns about shortcomings in irrigation audits, the affordability of rainwater harvesting rebates, and the effectiveness of the utility’ landscape conversion incentive program.


In an email to In Fact Daily, Robbins also questioned the reduction figures offered by the utility. “(A) considerable amount of this is due to the 2-day watering schedule, enforceable by law, and the 1-day drought watering schedule, enforceable by law,” Robbins wrote. “To claim savings for mandatory restrictions in a drought is a little misleading.”


Indeed, whether the utility’s conservation success would continue past the current drought became a question for Leffingwell. “It is true that we did a lot better with water conservation over the past few years than we expected to do,” he said. “But, still, going forward, it’s only a prediction. As Yogi Berra said ‘predictions are very difficult, especially when they’re about the future.’”


Leffingwell then referenced a statement that Spelman made. “There is a question about the psychology,” Leffingwell offered, wondering whether visibly low lakes and intense coverage of the drought had contributed disproportionally to conservation numbers.


He further suggested that, if true, that fact could produce a rebound in water usage numbers after the drought passes, and that “further (conservation) savings could be realized” in going back to suggestions made during the 2006 water conservation task force’s efforts. 

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