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Point, Counterpoint

The debate over Water Treatment Plant No. 4

By Nora Ankrum and Amy Smith, Fri., Sept. 18, 2009

Should Austin build a new water treatment plant to ensure the city's future water needs, or save money and water by hunkering down with stronger water conservation measures? Opponents of the project will hash out their differences with Water Treatment Plant No. 4 supporters in an old-fashioned public debate tonight (Thursday, Sept. 17), 6-9pm, at the Palmer Events Center, 900 Barton Springs Rd.

Speaking for the opposition: Colin Clark, Save Our Springs Alliance; Luke Metzger, Environment Texas; David Foster, Clean Water Action; and Chris Lehman, Austin Sierra Club.

Speaking for the project: Austin Water Utility Director Greg Meszaros; AWU Assistant Directors Daryl Slusher (environmental affairs and conservation) and David Anders (business and finance); and Teresa Lutes, division manager of water resources and planning.

The moderator is Jim Walker, the University of Texas' director of sustainability. Here are some of the key talking points to expect:

Austin Water Utility: WTP4 is needed to meet estimated future peak-demand levels.

Enviros: AWU has historically overestimated demand, attributing population growth to single-family homes rather than condos, for example, and to water-siphoning chip-manufacturing jobs that are now being outsourced. Using flawed assumptions about both conservation and water use, AWU also underestimates how long water use can remain flat, even as population increases (as in drought-conscious San Antonio).

AWU: WTP4 is needed to replace the 42 million gallons per day lost when Austin decommissioned the Green Water Treatment Plant last year and to create redundancy in the system so that older plants can be repaired.

Enviros: Cities with comparable populations have an average of 1.7 water treatment plants, and Austin already has two. If further redundancy is needed, a more efficient solution would be to install rainwater harvesting equipment on customers' homes – to do so on every single-family home in Austin would still cost only a fraction of WTP4's price tag while dramatically cutting water use.

AWU: WTP4 does not compromise water conservation efforts.

Enviros: Going into debt for WTP4 will further jeopardize resources for conservation efforts on which the utility is already underachieving: AWU aims too low on conservation goals, historically underspends its own conservation budget, and makes unwise decisions on the conservation funds it does spend, and then uses the results to justify further low expectations.

AWU: WTP4 is good for the economy, providing $400 million in design, consulting, and construction contracts.

Enviros: Conservation would be equally beneficial for job creation, as it would require the repair of faulty irrigation systems, computerization of sprinkler systems, and installation of low-flow toilets and rainwater harvesting systems.

AWU: In this down economy, acting now on WTP4 will save money on construction contracts and interest rates.

Enviros: AWU customers would benefit more from funds spent on conservation efforts – which would incur further savings through the resulting reduction in wastewater treatment – than from paying higher rates to build a plant they don't need. Furthermore, AWU's credibility on WTP4 is especially questionable in light of an August report by the city auditor's office stating AWU's "engineering costs exceed industry benchmarks," in part because the utility provides "insufficient information concerning the complexity and size of each project."

AWU: Because WTP4 will be more energy-efficient than current plants, operating it will allow AWU to cut overall CO2 emissions.

Enviros: These savings don't account for the emissions incurred in building the plant, and they're based on flawed assumptions (e.g., that the lake will be at full levels and that AWU customers' water use will continue to increase rather than decrease or flatten out).

AWU: WTP4 will draw water from Lake Travis – a reservoir on the Colorado River – rather than directly from the river itself, which means less direct impact on wildlife and ecosystems downstream.

Enviros: Because Lake Travis is part of the river, the difference between the two is minimal. And AWU's environmental impact study is still under way, so it's uncertain how the plant will affect its surroundings, including the environmentally sensitive Bull Creek. As for its economic impact, many Lake Travis business owners fear the plant will suck the lake dry.

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