Beside the Point

Welcome to plumber's paradise

I heard it through the pipeline: "We're about to notice 10,000 residents of some issues that we found in their private sewer lines, and they're going to be told that they have 60 days to repair these lines," said Mike Martinez. (Ugh, can you imagine what they'll find in yours?) "I want to know what kind of process we have in place for things like protests and appeals action, extensions. I really am not sure that the 10,000 people that are going to get noticed are aware of what's about to happen and why." Despite a lengthy briefing from Austin Water Utility director Perwez Moheet at that council meeting, neither were we. So we called him.

The topic at hand (the only pressing public discussion in the mayor's absence from the dais last week for the national mayors' convention) is how the Austin Clean Water Program, after several major public projects, is now turning toward private residences. "In 1999, the [Environmental Protection Agency] placed Austin under an administrative order," says Moheet. "In a nutshell, they instructed the city to eliminate sanitary sewer overflows by 2009." So the ACWP was created to "replace, repair, and realign" the city's broken pipes. Heretofore focused primarily on major public works, the ACWP is also responsible for overseeing private laterals – lines running from homes and businesses into the city's sanitary sewer. Of the city's 190,000 laterals, some 10,000 are believed to be defective, thereby creating approximately 50% of the system overflows, says Moheet. Some repairs can be simple, but not all – Moheet estimates the average repair cost at more than $2,000. "If you end up having a $3,000 repair and you're given a notice that you have 60 days to comply," Martinez said, "I'd like to see if there's any way possible that we can extend that."

Of course, there's still some time before notices get issued. Moheet says the first round may be in July or August, but he doesn't anticipate completing inspections for another three to five years (after the 2009 deadline, council noted; Moheet said the EPA will tolerate some delay within overall progress). The interim will also be useful for the city to select the plumbing contractors to perform the work (enough to double-flush any clog of back orders) and to finalize programs for those having trouble paying. (The city will buy down interest to 2.9% on credit-union loans up to $3,000; grants exist for lower-income home or business owners.)

Council doubled the fix-up deadline from 60 to 120 days, with Moheet saying it wouldn't impact ACWP goals; Jennifer Kim voted no, calling delay antithetical to the goal of getting folks to plug the leaks. Maybe not the wisest move politically, as the above-the-fold, full-on press against Kim's recent airport-access blunder signals the unofficial start of the 2008 campaign season. With web commentators, the Statesman editorial board, columnist John Kelso, and our own Chronic blog ( abuzz with All Matters Jennifer, the Place 3 rep may have a bumpy road ahead.

To regain some public points, why not thrust herself onto the bleeding edge of the Matagorda debate? Item 5 today (Thursday) allows for land acquisition in Matagorda County, for a new, albeit cleaner-burning, coal-fired plant. On Monday, Kim's current nemesis, the Statesman editorial page, draped the proposal in its dollar-store gravitas, always an auspicious omen. This was followed by enviro protestations that the plan (or alternatives) hasn't been fully discussed. However, supporters say all the item does is open bargaining; moreover, word is the item will come to the dais with stronger protections, ensuring Austin-bound coal energy utilizes the latest pollutant capture and cleaning technology. Question of the day: Should Austin carry coal to Matagorda? Kim also flies her energy flag elsewhere on the agenda, proposing a campaign to spread awareness of the city's energy services (audits, rebates, etc.) for inefficient homes. Rounding out the day are a mind-bending nine closed-door items in executive session, a 10:30am presentation on Seaholm, and after 6pm, this Big Box Ordinance we've heard so much about – try bringing that through airport security.

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Austin City Council, City Council, Austin Clean Water Program, Jennifer Kim, Austin Energy

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