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The LCRA water deal with the city of Austin is suspicious.

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Like most people, I first read about the new LCRA water deal with the city of Austin in the Austin American-Statesman. Soon, there followed an editorial attacking the SOS organization's opposition to the plan. Stockpiling water, as with buying land, seems to me an inherently smart thing for a city to do unless there is some overwhelming argument against it. A water deal that looks bad in 1999 is probably going to look very different in 2025. Lately, SOS has seemed to be casting around for some defining issues, having lost the gyroscopically perfect centering of their initial, long-successful campaign. On the other hand, if city staff, the mayor, the Statesman's editorial board, and Mark Rose and the LCRA are in agreement, it should certainly raise suspicions.

Brigid Shea and Bill Bunch came to the Chronicle offices to talk to us about this deal. They argued we were entering a deadly Mobius strip with this deal. The process itself was depressingly familiar: The deal had emerged from behind closed doors, ready to go, and with a strict deadline. There really wasn't much time to look at it, and the city was reluctant to answer questions.

Shea and Bunch's arguments boiled down to several points. There is no certainty that we will really need this water, since the city has no long-range strategy regarding water use and water conservation. Even if we do need the water, it is still very expensive. Given that it is expensive and we may not need it, the deal sucks. Given that the deal sucks, we are then paying far too much up front. (The city would pay $25 million down.)

More disturbingly, they argue that this money will go toward funding the LCRA's build-out of infrastructure for development throughout the Hill Country. The LCRA has aggressively pursued new water contracts, taking some water business that used to be Austin's. In the areas it serves, the LCRA will build out infrastructure that will encourage massive development. This growth may well guarantee that we will, in fact, need the water that we are now buying.

Get it? We are paying the LCRA a lot of money which they will use to build the infrastructure support for ever-expanded developments, which means new customers for them. These customers will use up ever more water. This will make water more scarce, which will mean that in 30 years this will be a good deal. Without this build-out, given the deals that affect our water supply, we should be okay for the next 50 years. (Bunch, in particular, argued that Austin is getting close to being built out within the city limits, especially since the LCRA has aggressively added so many new customers. Thus we are maxing out on the amount of water we use each year.)

The question is whether this infrastructure will be causing this growth or accommodating it. Would the development occur without adequate infrastructure? It's the same argument with roads. Do they cause growth? Maybe. Maybe not. I remember what it was like to drive through Phoenix in the early 1980s with sprawl everywhere. It seemed like half an hour of driving through suburbs to go through the city. Even though the city hadn't built a highway, growth happened. To raise this question is not to answer it.

So, let us say there is an argument for buying the water. The warning alarm here is the process. At the Chronicle, over the years, we have learned to say no to any offer that carries with it a basically arbitrary deadline. The city shouldn't operate differently. This plan was developed behind closed doors, without enough community input, and we are being given a ridiculously short timetable by which to make plans for the next 50 years. I'll bet, when the process is done, I'll favor purchasing the water. The aggravating point is that this is how our city operates: No master water plan, no public scrutiny, no reasonable timetable. Instead, we witness the politics of railroading at their most obvious. I say let's buy water, but let's be sure it's a reasonable deal, complementing a strategic plan.


Welcome to Vol. 19, No. 2. The redesign continues. We are now in the fine-tuning stage where Art Director Taylor Holland looks continually distressed. I suspect that over the next few weeks there will be little changes each week. The Web site is being fine-tuned as well; please check it out at

Next issue, September 17, we'll offer the winners of The Austin Chronicle Short Story contest, and the issue after that, September 24, will be our annual "Best of Austin" issue. end story

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lcra, american-statesman, water, sos

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