Beside the Point

Pick Your Conspiracy Week!

The city wants to move the proposed Water Treatment Plant 
4 to the Cortana tract, southwest of the original site at Lake 
Travis, in northwest Austin.
The city wants to move the proposed Water Treatment Plant 4 to the Cortana tract, southwest of the original site at Lake Travis, in northwest Austin.

Austin's clapboard jungle of boards and commissions deals with everything from solid waste to day labor to historic zoning – the city spawns innumerable stakeholders' groups, not to mention their flowering subcommittee fauna. And in their finer hours, their results can cut revealingly through the council's conflict-free exterior. This is especially true of their Pyrrhic victories – when heartfelt recommendations to council fall on deaf official's ears.

Rightly or wrongly, the Environmental Board is seen as possessing such a history, and last week the board urged council to take a 30-day breather in its sprint to build Water Treatment Plant 4. Today, July 27, council considers two relevant items: an amendment to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service permits letting the city move the proposed plant to the Cortana tract southwest of the original proposed site at Lake Travis, in northwest Austin (Item 8); and delivering the first $10 million of an expected $40 to 50 million to Carollo Engineers for plant assessment, engineering, and construction (Item 38). No one doubts Austin's expanding water needs, but the plant-selection process has settled cloudily in board members' cups. "I've been on the environmental board for six years," says Phil Moncada. "I have seniority. And I was seriously considering withdrawing from the board because of the lack of information."

A lack of information has pervaded the project, says Moncada. Now the move from the original site to Cortana has happened so fast as to obscure any environmental concerns. Crushed under the wheels may be the black-capped vireo; at its meeting last week, the board heard from biologists saying the tract is one of the endangered bird's last remaining habitats. Sympathetic is Council Member Mike Martinez, who complained of being abruptly saddled with the WTP 4 vote at his first meeting. He thinks the city should determine the precise level of threat at Cortana: "If we're going to damage [the vireo] habitat, can it be mitigated, and how?"

Staff argues that WTP 4's uphill location will expend less pumping energy, but Moncada speculates a bait-and-switch, even suggesting that the abandoned original plan – the radioactive proposal of a new plant at Guerrero Park – was intentionally so ham-handed as to build alternative momentum for WTP 4. While it's a stretch to presume a private conspiracy involving everybody from Mayor Wynn down to the Austin Water Utility's Power Point jockeys, it's imaginable that Green might have died due to willing negligence. (While we're on the subject, does the AWU possess anything resembling a strategic vision, or will all its future decisions be steered by the seat of Council's pants?) Whatever the actual backstory, it's the duty of commissions and boards to review and stretch the parameters of debate – especially with groupthink so firmly grounded on the dais.

Speaking of conspiracies, council is also considering a camera darkly: Martinez, Jennifer Kim, and Lee Leffingwell want to ask the city manager to mull installation of traffic cameras for remote ticketing of red-light runners (Item 93). Martinez says cameras might improve safety, but when reached regarding the proposal, sounded more curious than determined. On privacy issues, he did argue the "opposition is misguided when they say [the proposal's] coming from Big Brother."

Not so, says the ACLU's Debbie Russell. Aside from their uncertain constitutionality, due to differing civil (ticket in the mail) vs. criminal (getting pulled over) enforcement, she says the cameras have actually increased rear-end collisions elsewhere, as drivers spot the cameras and slam on the brakes. "People see this as a cash cow, and not really there to improve public safety," she says. And she worries about a slippery slope to biometric (i.e., facial recognition) cameras. "People will start getting tickets, saying, 'That wasn't me driving,'" says Russell. (In fact, under the civil statute, the owner is ticketed, not the driver.) "They'll say, 'We need better cameras."

Hmm. Do we really want to light a bigger fire under Alex Jones?

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Austin City Council, environmental board, Water Treatment Plant 4, city council, cortana tract, Martinez, Jennifer Kim, Lee Leffingwell, Debbie Russell, ACLU

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