Beside the Point

Water Torture

It was an amiable, online chat like any other: Summer plans were bandied, books were suggested, the intractable challenge of VCR programming was comically lamented. However, the Web locale of this banter was unique: www.jenniferkiminaustin.com – no doubt in homage to her winning campaign site, www.kimforaustin.com.

Unwieldy URLs aside, last Friday, Kim took to the Web in the first of several planned online chats. For council hounds, this should have been an event nonpareil – floating through the Internet ether with Kim. When we checked, we found a virtual version of neighborhood advocate Laura Morrison and a softball-lobbing AustinMatt ("do you feel this new council can be as effective as the last one … or even more?") we're 100% sure isn't a certain mayoral aide. But even if they weren't sailing slow and low across the plate, it's doubtful we'd catch too much. While we admire Kim's gesture to accessibility, the signal-to-noise ratio in a chat room, even one this well-mannered, is unmaneuverable. Not, that is, the best place to inquire about complicated events transpiring the night before – approval of Water Treatment Plant 4 over Green Water Treatment Plant, or Kim, rewater policy, seining city staff through the wringer.

At heart, the issue governing the plant decision ought to be, simply: How can the city be assured of enough water for the lowest price? A month ago, the prevailing sentiment favored relocating Green WTP eastward, out of Downtown. But a funny thing happened on the trail to the lake: The Austin Water Utility proposal to relocate Green into the Eastside's Guerrero Park blew up, politically and financially, so the perennially maligned WTP 4 re-entered, stage left. Proposed for Northwest Austin's Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, the initial site was criticized as environmentally unsound. So staff proposed a site shift – still in the BCP, but a mile away from its previous position at the headwaters of Bull Creek. Most alluring is the increased capacity: 50 million gallons a day on opening, twice Green's potential. Basically, the argument went, if WTP 4 is built first (in 2013), Green's construction (and cost) could be delayed until 2041; but if Green were approved, meeting its start time of 2011, WTP 4 would have to be online a scant six years later to meet demand.

Saying she was concerned by the proposed delay from 2011 to 2013, Kim telegraphed she'd go to the mat for Green in a chat with Thursday morning's insider newsletter In Fact Daily. She didn't disappoint – when the issue bobbed to the surface, she unleashed a torrent of combative questions and foreboding predictions regarding the delay, to be enabled by conservation measures proposed by colleague Lee Leffingwell. "It's not an exact science, whether water conservation will work," Kim argued, pointing to companies like Samsung that alone use upwards of 5 MGD. She called up a nightmare landscape of parched parkland, fried by watering restrictions, and demanded, "Is that the kind of Austin we want?"

Leffingwell replied that the doomsday drought predictions underlying the 2011 timeline weren't based on current water usage, or peak usage, but peak usage plus 10% (a built-in safety factor). So despite the specter of global warming, a decimated manufacturing economy, and – gasp! – desperate Xeriscaping, WTP 4 was approved, with the provision that Green be placed on some certainly-little-to-be-heard-from quasi-contingency plan. "We will have to force measures, some that the public won't support," said Kim, flogging the desiccated horse. "I'm very dismayed today we're not doing our due diligence." Newbie Mike Martinez ultimately voted yes, but was similarly nonplussed; while some at City Hall have had six years to weigh WTP 4, he's had "less than six hours of briefings."

Further clouding the waters were allegations of influence peddling and a full-press lobby pile-on. Former council member Brigid Shea addressed council, worried that "major political interests" were strong-arming the selection process. Which would theoretically include, uh, herself – lobbying on behalf of Green. As detailed in In Fact Daily, Shea was most concerned about one Sustainable Water Resources, a corporate group wanting to sell water from Lee County's Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer to the expected growth corridor along I-30. According to Leffingwell, this particular argument doesn't hold water. "I know they're trying to sell the city water," he told the Chronicle later. "But it has nothing to do with building water treatment plants, and in what sequence." In the end, Leffingwell's conservation proposal is not only the right thing to do, it also let city staff 86 an increasingly complicated Green relocation, while OK-ing Plant 4, which they've pushed for years. Here's hoping Kim's conservation concerns will be assuaged once council drafts the proposals, following summer vacation.

Next meeting: July 27. And don't be jealous that I've been chatting online with council members all day.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin City Council, city council, water treatment plant 4, green water treatment plant, water conservation, Jennifer Kim, Lee Leffingwell, Brigid Shea

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