County Doesn't Blink on City's WTP 4 Challenge

City dangles Bull Creek in front of bulldozers, but county won't take the bait

Thus far, this is all that has transpired in the city's claim that it will build Water Treatment Plant No. 4 on the Bull Creek site.
Thus far, this is all that has transpired in the city's claim that it will build Water Treatment Plant No. 4 on the Bull Creek site. (Photo By John Anderson)

Following a firm rebuke from the Travis Co. Commissioners Court, the city's plans for Water Treatment Plant No. 4 are anyone's guess. Last Wednesday, the commissioners voted 4-1 against amending a U.S. Fish and Wildlife permit to allow the city to build WTP 4 on 45 acres of the Cortaña tract of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve (as reported in more detail on In issuing their decision, the court was influenced by hours of testimony stating the city hadn't exhausted all options before naming Cortaña the only viable site. "The only way to win this game is not to play," said commissioner Karen Sonleitner. The city had insisted that the county approve Cortaña construction by late last month, or they vowed to begin construction at the alternate Bull Creek macrosite. Bull Creek, the originally proposed location, is also in the BCP, and the city claims it's more ecologically fragile than Cortaña. Facing two unenviable options, Sonleitner said the city posed nothing less than "an environmental 'Sophie's choice.'"

The city claims they're ready to split the baby, but their knives might need a little sharpening. The reasoning goes that proceeding at Bull Creek, while not the best option, is required to meet water demands in 2013. Hence, they claimed, their unsuccessful deadline for Cortaña approval was necessitated as it coincided with the migration of the black-capped vireo, the endangered bird that nests there; the hope was to perform site work in the birds' absence. But failing that, just how much work the city has done (or truly plans to do) at Bull Creek is debatable. Laurie Lentz, spokeswoman for the Austin Water Utility, said there was already a gate, fencing, and a temporary driveway into the site; the city "just extended that" to the trailer they placed on the site. Lentz also said a site and boundary survey had been completed, but as of this Monday, the trailer sat silently, with a still earthmover at its side.

The lack of action may signal that the city is looking for a more politically feasible solution than Bull Creek or at least another path into Cortaña. It should be noted that Sonleitner, adamantly opposed to either site, relinquishes her Precinct 2 seat in January; her replacement, Sarah Eckhardt, may take a different approach. "I'm just a private citizen," Eckhardt reminded us, having beaten Sonleitner in the primary but not yet elected. "It needs to be made clear if there are special elements saying that this is not a slippery slope. I don't think the city has made the case to the county," she said. "The county hasn't been convinced. But that's not to say they can't be convinced."

Until then, the city may be content to keep the Bull Creek trailer park as a bluff. But also possible is a legal challenge to the city's proceedings. At the Commissioners Court hearing, attorney Bruce Bigelow argued that, contrary to the city's legal opinion, the take of parkland constituted more than a "minor" amendment to the federal permit. Also questioned was the curious way the city's amendment hearing took place following three votes in favor of the site, and the legally questionable "either/or" nature of the city resolution creating the Cortaña deadline.

As for now, WTP 4's only certainty is uncertainty.

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More Water Treatment Plant No. 4
WTP4: What's $15 Million Among Friends?
WTP4: What's $15 Million Among Friends?
One expects Council will be more vigilant the next time around

Mike Kanin, Dec. 14, 2012

WTP4: Running on Overruns?
WTP4: Running on Overruns?
Austin Water wants more money for WTP4

Mike Kanin, Oct. 19, 2012

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Water Treatment Plant No. 4, Water Treatment Plant 4, City Council, Balcones Canyonlands Preserve

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