The Austin Chronicle

Beside the Point: All Grown Up

How Water Treatment Plant 4 got where it is today

By Wells Dunbar, September 1, 2006, News

"Beside the Point" is celebrating an anniversary this week. When our honoree sprang to life in the 1980s, there was nothing like it at the time; Austin was a far different place. Still, its most remarkable trait is its viability – that it's stronger today than any point in its 20-plus year history. So here, here – let us raise our glasses and toast Water Treatment Plant 4.

What did you think I was talking about?

Not the Chronicle – we turn 25 next week. This paper was still a young, struggling biweekly when Water Treatment Plant 4 came into being. Austin really was a different place when WTP4's lands were purchased back in 1984, but as ecological and environmental awareness grew, so did appreciation of the diverse habitat on the proposed plant's land. It was this sensitivity that relegated the plant to the back burner, as the land was incorporated into a first-of-its-kind species preserve. So the confusion was forgivable when WTP4 began its inexplicable leap from obscurity to new water plant frontrunner this summer, at City Council's request. Plowing forward, last week council approved a "minor amendment" to the federal fish-and-wildlife permit governing WTP4's lands, relocating the plant from its original site at the headwaters of Bull Creek to the so-called Cortaña tract just south of it; both plots are part of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, that parcel of conservation lands in Northwest Austin co-managed by the city, county, and other agencies. And therein's the rub: Miffed that they (like every other pertinent entity) were left in the dark on the city's decision to dust off WTP4's plans, the county is in no rush to go along with the city's decision. Last week's Travis Co. Commissioners' vote on the move was punted to this week; this Tuesday, they again rebuffed the city's overtures. Like so many Eighties babies, WTP4 is becoming a child of divorce.

As with most splits, the major issue is money. The BCP, which has a 30,000-acre goal, is currently around 28,000 acres; while the city has paid for 13,000 acres, the county's only snatched up 2,300. And now they're flashing back to their first date, apparently – conventional wisdom goes that the county is looking to be wined and dined, letting the city pick up the remaining BCP land, if they're to give their approval to WTP4. Jilted lover to the county's gay divorcée, the city whines that they've put the most into the BCP. Will Wynn (who incidentally serves on a coordinating committee overseeing the preserve) began the offensive at last week's meeting. "When you think about the land that could have been purchased by the county with those bonds in 1992," said the mayor, referencing the county's failed bond election, "they were listed for about $1,000 an acre," a far cry from current prices. "The county has been behind the curve all this time, trying to buy their land with U.S. Fish and Wildlife ... dollars that are becoming more scarce and more scarce. ... It's such a sin that set of dynamics occurred." Wynn also pointed to a list of concessions the city agreed to regarding WTP4, as proposed by several skeptical city and BCP committees: an emphasis on new lands for the endangered Black-Capped Vireo, of which some 10 would be displaced by Cortaña construction, and dedicating the nearby Little Barton Creek tract to the BCP, along with the original tract.

But not quite yet – as a hedge on their bets, if not their sanity, council passed the motion last week with one large caveat; the city will proceed on the original, even more environmentally sensitive Bull Creek tract, if the county doesn't comply by Sept. 27. Yes, if the lack of transparency in the plant selection process wasn't galling enough, the city is now basing future water plans and a $300 million utility investment on a staring contest with the county.

While today's council agenda looks mercifully free of water follies, Lee Leffingwell brings a proposal banning the practice of 18-wheelers' deafening "engine braking." Similarly, there's three items (18-20) dropping speed limits in many residential neighborhoods to 25 mph. Several long-awaited items delayed from last week's overstuffed meeting also appear, including a 2:30 briefing on the feasibility of folding City Marshals, Park Police, and Airport Police into the APD. Rounding out the meeting are several contentious public hearings over the city budget, fee hikes from Austin Water Utility and Solid Waste Services, design standards, and revisions to the McMansion ordinance. Buckle up – it'll only feel like 25 years. end story

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