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Reporter’s Notebook: City cuts ribbon on WTP4

Monday, December 22, 2014 by Austin Monitor

After 30 years, WTP4 finally begins pumping water …  Do you remember what you were doing in September 1984? If you lived in Austin and were of voting age, you may have voted “yes” to allow the city to go into debt to build a new water treatment plant to serve the growing northwest part of the city. After 30 years of planning, wrangling, shouting, delays, lawsuits and a 4-3 City Council vote to build it in 2009, the city finally cut the ribbon last week, officially turning on the spigot to Water Treatment Plant 4. The original ballot proposition for WTP4 asked, innocently enough, if the city could issue $141 million in bonds to build a “new water treatment plant, a reservoir and transmission mains” to improve water service. Seems innocuous now, but one needs to remember that in 1984, Austin was a bona fide boom town. The economy was racing at breakneck speed, businesses were growing and expanding, houses were going up by the hundreds each week and the Sunday paper had so many help-wanted ads it was putting dents in its subscribers’ front porches. (This is beginning to sound familiar, but it is perhaps a cautionary tale for another time.) Austin’s boom in the mid-’80s even had its own theme song: “The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades.” The WTP4 bond proposition was only one of 28 approved on the 1984 ballot, authorizing the city to build everything from water and sewer projects to new generating capacity for Austin Energy to myriad parks and pools. That all crashed in early ’86, when the Savings and Loan bubble burst and the really good times turned into very bad times virtually overnight. Thus, plans for WTP4 ended up on a shelf and sat there for 20 years, only to be revived in 2004 when population estimates grew and Austin’s three existing water treatment plants were looking long in the tooth. It was originally planned on property bought by the city on a high point in the Bull Creek headwaters, an environmentally sensitive area on the outskirts of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve. Following a couple of years of protests by the Save Our Springs Alliance, the Sierra Club and others, the city finally relented and eventually found another location for the plant at RM 620 and Bullick Hollow Road. After five years of construction and an estimated $520 million price tag, the plant is now online with a pumping capacity of 50 million gallons a day (to eventually be expanded to 300 MGD). One of the major arguments by environmentalists over the years was that the city did not need the extra capacity, which was vigorously — and successfully — countered by water utility officials. And yet, as the ribbon was cut last Friday, the city’s current demand for water is estimated to be about 185 MGD — an amount easily handled by the city’s two other water treatment plants, Ullrich and Davis. But WTP4 is now completed, and taxpayers will begin seeing their share of the half-billion dollar tab on their utility and tax bills soon. We don’t know if WTP4 sets any records for how long it took for a project to be completed, but there is another controversial project, State Highway 45 Southwest — first proposed in 1986 and still being debated — that could pass it up if it isn’t completed in the next couple of years. If not, we may have to wait until 2044 or later to see if Austin can manage to hold up another public project for three decades or more.

(This week’s Reporter’s Notebook item was contributed by reporter Mark Richardson.)

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