The Austin Chronicle

Beside The Point

Bird Brains

By Wells Dunbar, August 4, 2006, News

"Expect the worst and hope for the best" isn't comforting policy, but hell – it's honest. With blunt talk in short supply, welcome realness arrived on council's doorstep last Thursday (no meeting this week) in the form of a one Willy Conrad. At the Austin Water Utility, Conrad is point man for Water Treatment Plant 4, to be built in Balcones Canyonlands Preserve. In many ways he's charged with defending the indefensible: The logic to building the city's next water plant in northwest Austin, away from future growth planned out east, is tortured enough; the overnight rehabilitation of WTP 4 to plant frontrunner, after being pummeled in public-works purgatory for 10-plus years, is similarly befuddling. Not according to the official line, of course: It goes that WTP 4's higher ground will require less pumping energy, and that annoying enviro and animal-habitat issues troubling the original site are squashed by moving the plant south, to the Cortana tract.

Well, that polite fiction was exploded Thursday, over discussion of the funding for WTP 4 designers Carollo Engineers. "We are about to authorize between $10 and $14 million [for Carollo], but we are still waiting on the impact analysis of the habitat issue," said Council Member Mike Martinez, speaking of the still-to-be-determined location of WTP 4 on the nesting sites of black-capped vireos. The Cortana tract is one of only two large nesting areas for the endangered bird in Austin; Martinez was concerned about cutting the check to Carollo, only to hear later that nothing can be done to protect the birds.

The answers from Conrad were illuminating: "In the long term of what we are planning here, there is going to be destruction of up to 45 acres of the 70-acre site. … To be perfectly honest, our staff is split on what the potential of that may be. There's one side of our staff that feels … the entire colony [of five nesting pairs] may be lost. … However, the other side of our staff feels that up to three of those pairs may move to adjourning areas. … I think my advice has always been we should expect the worst and hope for the best, as far as the five nesting pairs we are dealing with."

Mary Arnold of the city's Environmental Board also sounded an alarm, particularly angry that a mitigation report on Cortana prepared back in September was given to the board just last week – after council approved the plan. "I would encourage the City Council to delay this item a bit, to work out a way that you can reduce the $10 million. Show us what we got for 1 million," she said, referencing funds previously allotted to Carollo for site assessment, "and devise a smaller amount right now to work on the alternate site issues, the environmental assessment that we don't have."

To no avail: Carollo's contract was approved 5-1, Martinez voting no, and Jennifer Kim abstaining. "I think requesting a two-week delay to get more of a scope of activity from the first million … is not unreasonable," said Martinez. Not unreasonable, just … for the birds.

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