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City Hall Hustle: The Fires This Time

Austin's feverish summer a tinderbox for rumination

By Wells Dunbar, Fri., Sept. 9, 2011

Bastrop saw the worst of this week's wildfires, with some 34,000 acres burned and nearly 800 homes destroyed.
Bastrop saw the worst of this week's wildfires, with some 34,000 acres burned and nearly 800 homes destroyed.
Photo by Sandy Carson

As I write on Wednesday morning, Austin is surrounded by flames.

Despite the fires' proximity, here in the urban core it's easy to lose sight of the magnitude of the disaster unfolding around us – or it was until a low-hanging smoke enveloped the city. For us, the high winds that blew into town over Labor Day weekend offered cooling relief from the relentless heat and the prolonged drought that have plagued Central Texas all year – the cause of the tinderbox conditions that gave life to the blazes.

Gov. Rick Perry suspended overt campaigning to return to Texas in order to survey the damage, indulging in several lengthy interviews with media outlets in a supposedly depoliticized setting along the way. It was here that Perry, the presumptive tea party front-runner for the GOP nomination, complained that federal firefighting support, including material from Fort Hood, has not been sufficiently available. "It's more difficult than it should be," the Austin-American States­man quotes the governor as saying. "When you have people hurting, when lives are in danger, I don't care who owns the asset."

Perry's right in arguing for expediting assistance in times of crisis. But I can't be the only one to note the soot-black irony of Perry – whose surge in the GOP horse race is attributable to his states'-rights-asserting, safety-net-dismantling strand of corporatism disguised as bootstrapping populist hokum – calling on the feds for help after slashing state funding for volunteer fire departments. Nor to acknowledge the strain on Fort Hood, bogged down in two Repub­lican-initiated (and Democrat-expanded) wars in the Middle East, or consider the party of climate change deniers seeing the results of extreme weather unfolding in such a horrific example in the heart of Texas. As liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias wrote, appropriating a Trotsky quote, "Neither Governor Perry nor the bulk of Texas' citizens may be interested in climate change, but climate change is interested in them."

Hardening Arteries

Closer to home, Water Treat­ment Plant No. 4 is still stoking the fires at City Hall. We're still waiting on the city auditor's scrubbing of the work-stoppage costs for the temporary suspension of construction at WTP4, playing out in the background of the lead-up to budget adoption, which begins Sept. 12, and the ongoing revolt from environmental quarters over Austin Water's proposed rate increases and the unpopular concept of a "sustainability fee" to be paid by all ratepayers, regardless of usage.

"Because price is so effective at conserving water, I find it absolutely bizarre that many local environmentalists are opposing the new rate hikes," writes urbanist blogger Chris Bradford (www.austincontrarian.com). While also finding fault with the sustainability fee as "regressive and superfluous as long as [Austin Water] is pricing the water properly," he continues, "Opponents of the plant are so determined to block the plant that they have been citing the rate hikes as a downside of the plant even though they know (or should know) that raising rates is the most effective strategy for conserving water and will be necessary even if the plant is not built. They should stick to arguing that WTP4 is a bad use of taxpayer money and not front arguments that undercut water conservation."

There are certainly good-faith arguments to be made as to whether the utility has properly tiered the rate increases by usage amount and so forth. But the broader picture of Austin's environmental community collectively arguing against increased water rates – the most effective bulwark against waste – is odd, if not entirely unexpected. It's simply the latest iteration of the growth wars, laying the blame for Austin's growing pains on nebulous, albeit nefarious, "developers" and "newcomers" (i.e., everyone who got here after I did).

The conservative/libertarian drift among ostensibly progressive Austin activists points to the "recession" being not solely an economic function, but a mental one as well: When challenged, ideologies harden and recede into comfortable rhetorical crouches, shrinking back like drought-stricken dirt edging a house, revealing the oft-cracked foundation underlying it. Advocates of specific initiatives become increasingly convinced of the absolute righteousness of their causes and the perfidy of their opponents.

Island in the Storm

Continuing metaphorically, the image of an unscathed Austin surrounded by disaster is relatively fitting as the city continues to weather the sputtering, strained national economy better than most. Despite our (comparatively meager) budgetary gap, the debate over whether to upgrade our water treatment infrastructure almost comically reflects Austin's relative affluence. Think about it: Cost-concerned council members are asking the auditor to see if they could shrink WTP4 stoppage costs from a contractor-estimated $138 million to $206 million-plus, to, as Bill Spelman floated to us, a more acceptable $50 million or so.

Whether higher water rates, increased utility connection fees for new developments, or even codifying fees for greater Downtown density (a flash point in the Downtown Austin Plan coming to council in October) will ever succeed in the Sisyphean challenge of making "growth pay for itself" is still anybody's guess. But what's indisputable is Central Texas' draw – its jobs and relatively low cost of living, making it one of the cornerstones of Perry's "Texas Miracle." The fact that folks keep coming here, an epicenter of global warming's effects, in the midst of an epochal, century-defining drought, might make us want to keep focusing on the future instead of yesterday's battles.

I was driving east on 51st Street Monday at dusk with an apocalyptic magenta sunset behind me (Steiner Ranch), while the flat expanse of street in front of me displayed a mountain range of smoke billowing over the city (Bastrop). Awe, disaster, and perverse beauty: a contradictory jumble signifying the path Austin's on – along with our state and nation.


Follow the Hustle on Twitter (@CityHallHustle) and Facebook (www.facebook.com/CityHallHustle). "Point Austin" returns next week.

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