WTP 4: Meryl Streep Plays Travis County?
The county tells the city to take its Cortaña plan and get bent
On Wednesday evening, in a dramatic rebuff to the city of Austin, the Travis County Commissioners Court voted against allowing the city to build Water Treatment Plant No. 4, on the Cortaña tract in the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve. The 4-1 decision came after hours of testimony from biologists, Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan committee members and one prospective seller, claiming the city hadn't exhausted its options before deigning Cortaña the only "prudent and viable site."
Commissioner Karen Sonleitner, an outspoken opponent of locating the plant in either Cortaña, or at its originally chosen site at the headwaters of Bull Creek, called the options an "environmental Sophie's Choice." (Testifying later, environmentalist Robert Singleton reminded all that Sophie is forced by the Nazis to choose which one of her children dies, "ruining her life and leading to her suicide. We think you can avoid that fate," he told the court.)
The idea that the city had artificially narrowed its options to only the two sites was repeatedly hammered home throughout the hearing. Landowner Joe Lucas, owner of a nearby, oft-proposed alternative tract, said he had met with the city to offer his land abutting Lake Travis for sale, only to have it "summarily rejected" four hours later, without a site inspection. Ted Siff, chair of the the BCCP Citizens Advisory Committee, said he was no longer convinced of his committee's ruling that no "feasible and prudent" alternative existed. "I wish we got more information. I'm really, really surprised we didn't get more information," he said. David Steed of the BCCP's Scientific Advisory Commission also "felt forced into" the Bull Creek or Cortaña dilemma, noting the site work was done so far in advance of the selection, two options were no longer viable as they had been sold in the interim. Instead of a recommendation to proceed with WTP 4 as proposed, Sonleitner unleashed a torrent of suggestions to meet the city's water needs. These included expanding the Ullrich water plant, keeping the Green treatment plant online longer, utilizing the Lucas tract, further conservation, building a smaller plant, or some combination thereof.
Not all on the court were pleased with the decision. Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, the sole dissenting vote, was concerned the county's vote meant the city would proceed with construction at the more delicate Bull Creek site. "I think they will go forward, without question," said Daugherty, who serves with Will Wynn on the BCP's coordinating committee. The question surfaced repeatedly of whether or not the city was bluffing on its threat to build at Bull Creek, which, purchased in 1984, is already permitted for construction. Jeff Mundy from the Travis Audubon Society, while unenthusiastic about either site, said Cortaña was the lesser of two evils. He explained that while the black-capped vireo nested in Cortaña, preserving the Bull Creek site was critical for the continued viability of the also-endangered golden-cheeked warbler. At last week's City Council meeting, Wynn said a construction trailer was on the Bull Creek site, ready to begin preliminary work. "Whether that's a real threat, I don't know," said Mundy. "You don't think the city would threaten us like that?" joked commissioner Ron Davis.
Apparently not, judging by the court's vote, which throws the city's plans into greater doubt. "I very respectfully urge our partners [at the city of Austin] to rescind their actions in Bull Creek," said Sonleitner, "and collaboratively join to find a feasible and prudent alternative."
- The city and county play chicken over Bull Creek and Cortaña