To the Lighthouse
After 20 years, WTP4 returns to a still unanswered question: Do we need it?
By Wells Dunbar, Fri., Feb. 23, 2007
On Jan. 11, a letter from Austin Mayor Will Wynn was hand-delivered to Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe. The topic was the city's proposed water plant, Water Treatment Plant No. 4, expected (at full build-out) to process 300 million gallons a day of Lake Travis water. The city and county governments hadn't yet agreed on the location of the plant, but with the Commissioners Court set to reconsider the city's case, there were signs of progress.
"My colleagues and I on the City Council very much appreciate the Commissioners Court's willingness to informally continue dialogue about the siting of Water Treatment Plant 4," began the letter, before addressing the legal notice requirements for the hearing, Feb. 14 being the earliest it could occur. Even if the county acquiesced to the city's desires on Valentine's Day, the mayor continued, "there is no way to get the requisite work done, under our time constraints, moving forward from a February 14 hearing. Accordingly, there is no need for the Commissioners Court to take the steps to prepare a ... hearing, as the window has shut on reconsidering the Cortaña site for WTP 4."
That sudden anticlimax ended the city's quest to build WTP4 on some 40 acres in the Cortaña tract, within the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve. But instead of resolving the controversy, the decision meant the city would move to construct WTP4 at its initial site near the headwaters of Bull Creek, another environmentally and ecologically fraught location. Instead of quelling concerns by dropping Cortaña, the city's insistence to build at Bull Creek raises a host of old issues: about the decision to build in a nature preserve, about the long and complex process that pushed the proposal along and most fundamentally, about whether and when the massive city investment in additional water processing is needed at all.
Consistency and Guidance
"If you're looking at project size, from picking up the water until the water comes out the plant, this is the largest project the city's ever done, to my knowledge," says Jay Ulray, city project manager on WTP4. The plant, as sited at Bull Creek, is estimated initially to cost $250 million. "That number is our best estimate to date to build the first phase of the water plant," says Ulray, and it doesn't include $60 million for transmission mains, $7 million for an Austin Energy electric substation, and a recently announced $13 million for "environmental commissioning."
No earth has yet been moved. "We haven't done design. We're gathering data to do the design," says Ulray, but there is a basic conception. There's already a design for the "deep intake" structure in Lake Travis: A short, slim, lighthouselike tower will rise out of the water, camouflaging a system of pumps and tubes that will pull water from the lake, at any depth.
For this project, the de facto symbol of the lighthouse a beacon of consistency and guidance is somewhat ironic, considering the myriad changes in course and reasoning for building the plant over two decades. On the other hand, judging from the 20-year history of the proposal, one might also argue that the Austin Water Utility and city staff have long charted their current course by the distant light of WTP4.
In 1984, Austin was a vastly different place, but there remain contemporary echoes. It was also boom times, then driven by savings and loan deregulation. "The whole thing about Water Treatment Plant 4 is, if you go back toward the beginning when they bought the site, everybody thought Austin was gonna double not in 20 years, but in five, 10, or even less," says Save Our Springs director Bill Bunch, an opponent of building in the BCP, and moreover, strongly skeptical of any need for the new plant at all. "The LCRA [Lower Colorado River Authority] and Austin envisioned that they would provide water to the whole 183 corridor Cedar Park, Leander, and most of Williamson County." Therefore, WTP4 was originally conceived with an output of 600 million gallons a day. "Our peak day was 257 this year," Bunch notes. "So we were talking about a plant that would serve the entire city."
With utility revenue bonds, the city bought 240 acres at Bull Creek; along with a treatment plant, a fire station was planned to serve the area. (Fire station No. 39 opened in 1999.) But before construction of the treatment plant could get under way, the savings and loan crisis hit, the boom imploded, and WTP4 was put on hold.
In the interim, several other things have happened. Austin's burgeoning environmental movement questioned the wisdom of building at the creek's headwaters, where any pollution runoff would affect the entire source. In 1987, the black-capped vireo, a small bird that nests in what would become Cortaña, was listed as an endangered species; three years later, the golden-cheeked warbler was added to the list. Also making the endangered list were six creepy-crawlies known to nest underground in the region invertebrates like the Tooth Cave pseudoscorpion and Bone Cave harvestman. With eight protected animals, and other regional creatures like the Jollyville salamander listed as candidates or "species of concern," the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve was created in 1996 under a Clinton-administration initiative. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service issued a joint permit to the city and the county, with a goal "to permanently conserve and facilitate the recovery of the ... endangered species inhabiting western Travis County."
But from the beginning, the prospective WTP4 site at Bull Creek despite its seeming contradiction of the neighboring preserve's goals was exempted from the BCP and therefore remained under the exclusive control of the city. When the county balked at approving a plant at Cortaña, the exemption allowed the city to fall back to Bull Creek.
The Big Switch
The Eighties bust reined in Austin's massive plans for the plant until 2001, when the utility began planning anew, with the projected output cut in half, from 600 million gallons a day to 300. "At 600 MGD, you can justify drilling a tunnel two miles through bedrock, down to Lake Travis, and this huge intake structure," says Bunch. "And the numbers work out." But with the output halved, and LCRA providing water to surrounding areas, WTP4 "just doesn't make sense," concludes Bunch.
Ulray disagrees, saying it's "economically viable" to build out to 300 MGD. "When you start talking about dollars per gallon to produce water, accounting for how you oversize some things initially and look at the cost right now ... this plant is within a normal range of what you'd expect for a water plant." That range, he says, is a build-out cost of $3 to $6 per gallon of capacity; at $250 million, Ulray says, building the entire 300 MGD intake and tunnel, a smaller pump station, and a 50 MGD capacity plant adds up to $3.36 a gallon. (The utility is in talks with the LCRA to potentially share the intake, with LCRA channeling water to process at its own plant.)
Aside from the question of cost, a more fundamental question is whether the plant should draw from Lake Travis at all. The answer also has a complicated history.
In August 2005, Will Wynn was giving interviews in the unfinished top floor of the Computer Sciences Corporation building west of City Hall. The memorable view from the top Thomas C. Green Water Treatment Plant to the west, Town Lake to the south underscored his announcement: closure of the aging Green and construction of a new plant, also on the lakefront. Built in 1924, Green is the city's oldest and most outdated water plant. Every brisk rain kicks up sediment in its outdoor pools and halts processing cutting into its already meager output of 43 MGD. (By contrast, Albert H. Ullrich WTP, which draws from Lake Travis, pumps 167 MGD; the Albert R. Davis WTP, another Lake Travis plant, pumps 118.)
In addition to age, a more pressing reason for closing Green is its location on prime Downtown waterfront. Wynn has proposed building a new central library on part of the 6-acre site (a plan solidified with last year's successful $90-million bond initiative) and bidding out the rest for development. On that August day, Wynn also insisted that Green's replacement should retain Town Lake as its water source. It "makes even better environmental arguments for protecting Barton Springs and the Edwards Aquifer," Wynn said, because drawing drinking water downstream from the Springs would presumably motivate and justify additional aquifer protections.
But WTP4 soon resurfaced. The utility's April 2006 projections argued that even if construction of new Green began immediately, its first phase would only provide 25 MGD 18 MGD less than the current output necessitating having WTP4 online with 50 MGD by 2015. At the time, the title of the presentation was more publicly troubling: New Green Water Treatment Plant Site at Roy G. Guerrero Colorado River Park. That month, the utility had proposed relocating Green on an undeveloped 30-acre parcel south of the Guerrero athletic fields, adjacent to Town Lake. Despite a $5-million mitigation package, the outcry from park enthusiasts and minority activists was immediate. The proposal's timing, in the heat of a bitter election campaign over an "open government" proposition amid allegations of backroom dealing, didn't help.
Yet when City Council discarded the proposal June 22, instead of replacing Green and, as the mayor was fond of saying, "keeping a straw in Town Lake," they voted to build WTP4 on Lake Travis, on the little-heard-of Cortaña site an altogether different water policy. At the same time, council also approved creation of an ambitious water-conservation program, proposed by Lee Leffingwell, to reduce water consumption by 10% in 10 years. Yet even should that initiative succeed, council determined, the city needed WTP4 by 2013.
The abrupt reversal on Mike Martinez and Sheryl Cole's first day on the council dismayed some members. Neither of the options facing the two newly inaugurated minority representatives approving an industrial plant on East Austin parkland or proceeding with a plant controversial for more than 20 years were particularly appealing. While some council members had years to ponder WTP4, Martinez said he and Cole "had less than six hours of briefings to make this very difficult decision. And I am a little bit dismayed today ... that there is a bit of politics going on here with this issue." Former Council Member Brigid Shea agreed. Shea advocated for Green she was, in fact, a lobbyist employed by contractors hoping to build it but she warned that day of powers operating behind the scenes. "There are some major political forces at work" that haven't "been spoken to or addressed publicly," said Shea. (Her likely suspects were business interests hoping to sell water to the city from other sources for the SH 130 corridor, a notion dismissed by council members.) Indeed, the abrupt turnaround, coupled with the mismanaged Guerrero proposal, began to fuel whispers questioning whether all along, WTP4 was the city's real goal.
Some City Hall observers believe that the water utility was truly never invested in the Green relocation and that WTP4 was always a foregone conclusion. That jibes with the mayor's explanation to the Chronicle at the time; Wynn said he was under the impression that the area was just undeveloped land adjacent to the park. It was only later that he learned the land was part of the yet-unfunded master plan for the park, raising the question of how staff let such a crucial piece of information get overlooked. It could at least be argued that Leffingwell managed to get something in return the conservation initiative. His central argument was that rather than build two plants (since Green alone would never have enough capacity), it made more sense to buy immediate time by conservation and then build one larger plant. "The process was bungled; there's no question about that," recalled Leffingwell recently. "It was on a fast timeline [but] last summer, we were on a bad course. We were set out to build, by 2017, two water treatment plants. ... I finally said, look, if we can do a strong, aggressive, certifiable water-conservation program, that can stretch us a few years, we can forget about this plant down here [Green], and just build WTP4. ... We'd just build it a couple years sooner. So that was the trade-off. That's how water conservation entered into the scenario."
Feasible and Prudent
There still remained the unknown factor of Cortaña, purchased in 1993 as the city's first major preserve contribution. Staff argued that it wasn't as ecologically perilous as Bull Creek, where runoff poses an immediate water-quality threat. And while both areas are home to endangered birds, Central Texas is the only habitat for Bull Creek's golden-cheeked warbler; Cortaña's black-capped vireo, by contrast, nests from Kansas to Oklahoma down through Texas and into Mexico. Cortaña did share one important trait with Bull Creek and for that matter, with Guerrero Park. The city already owns it the most consistent advantage among the three tracts the utility proposed. But while Bull Creek was fully mitigated for construction and exempted from the BCP, Cortaña was still part of the preserve, and co-manager Travis County would have to sign off on the move.
According to Leffingwell, the city sought to start work Sept. 1 of last year, at the end of the vireo nesting season. But as a bureaucratic labyrinth of boards and commissions considered the matter, concerns surfaced. The plan was approved by BCP advisory committees with conditions (including dedicating Bull Creek to the preserve) but was rejected by the Environmental Board, which alleged that neither site had "an acceptable level of environmental protection." That summer, Environmental Board member Karin Ascot e-mailed the WTP4 team, questioning whether Cortaña and Bull Creek were the only viable sites.
Cortaña returned to council Aug. 24, where it was again approved for WTP4 (in advance of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department code hearing where it would supposedly be vetted) but only if the county signed off on the project by Sept. 27. Failing county approval by that date, the project would return to Bull Creek. The city hoped to start work in October.
Alas, the reception at the county was not exactly enthusiastic. The Commissioners Court ruled, reasonably enough, that if the issue was important enough for city hearings, the county should hold its own. Sept. 27 came and went; on Oct. 4, the court considered a Chapter 26 permit change allowing construction at Cortaña. Under the TPWD code, in order to build in a preserve, the governments involved must show that no "feasible and prudent alternative" exists.
After hours of testimony, commissioners disagreed that no alternative existed. Most adamant was departing Commissioner Karen Sonleitner, leading the 4-1 vote against WTP4. Calling the choice between Bull Creek and Cortaña "an environmental Sophie's Choice," she urged the city to explore any number of alternatives keeping Green online longer, expanding existing plants, or building a smaller plant on another nearby area.
Freshly rebuffed, the city's next strategy was seemingly to wait until January, when Sonleitner's seat would be filled by new Precinct 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt. But before that could happen, on Nov. 1 the city auditor released a report examining "allegations of integrity violations" involving WTP4's site selection. Investigating complaints that Ascot had been misled by city staff about the viability of another potential WTP4 site, the auditors confirmed the charge. However, the alternate site a southern portion of the same Cortaña tract fit only the city's initial criteria; the auditor found that, had the tract made it far enough to be vetted against the city's more stringent second set of qualifications, it would not have complied.
In a late round of 2007 negotiations, the county gave the city one last chance to make its case. Due to the legal-noticing requirements, the earliest the hearing could transpire was Feb. 14. That would have given the city just two weeks until the start of the nesting season, when work must end on the site well short of the four to six weeks needed. Two days later, the letter from Wynn to Briscoe was delivered, declaring the "window has shut."
As it happened, the city had also misread the likely sentiments of incoming Commissioner Eckhardt. Leffingwell acknowledged, "It's no secret Commissioner Sonleitner was adamantly opposed all along to Cortaña."
"And she was absolutely right," says Eckhardt now of her predecessor. "I think they did view me, and rightfully so, as [having] an open mind on the issue." But ultimately, it came down to the Chapter 26 criteria. "I didn't want to second-guess the city on Bull Creek," she said. "But the city was saying, 'If you don't amend Chapter 26 and allow us to build on Cortaña, we'll build on Bull Creek.' Well, from a lawyer's perspective, that's admitting there is a feasible and prudent alternative."
Leffingwell remains convinced the city tried to do the right thing. "We decided at the very outset [of the Cortaña proposal] to put on the table a mitigation package that was so strong, we believed nobody could turn it down. But yet that happened. I believe to this day that had the county agreed to go along with us on it, it would be a great benefit to the BCP."
Planning for the Worst
The paramount concern at Bull Creek is protecting water quality. "We know that, and the commitment has been made to protect those headwaters using every means at our disposal," says Leffingwell. "Controls that are put in place during the construction process, and afterward during operation, are going to be gold-plated. They're going to be like nothing that has been seen around here or nowhere else before."
Lest that sound hyperbolic, the city is putting considerable money where Leffingwell's mouth is, making a $13-million investment in "environmental commissioning." According to a statement from the utility, Watershed Protection Development Review environmental program coordinator Chuck Lesniak will lead a team from his department, as well as outside contractors that will "establish quantifiable environmental goals" and "incorporate environmental features from the outset." Ulray summarized the process as continuous environmental monitoring, "to make sure our goals are met ... to verify we are doing everything to protect the environment we said we would."
"I personally have no qualms at all about building at Bull Creek," says Bull Creek Foundation President Skip Cameron. There is a risk that pollution at Bull Creek would harm the salamander by washing into its habitat downstream, but Cameron said he's comfortable with the environmental protections in place. "There will be a full-time environmental officer for the project, an independent voice and set of eyes and ears to have an effect if anything at the plant appears to be detrimental."
But with a price tag ranging from $12.2 million (Lesniak's number to the Environmental Board), to $13 million (quoted by Ulray), to "up to $15 million," as the utility press release stated, some wonder whether the money couldn't have been better spent elsewhere. Environmental Board member William Curra said that "some of the other sites could have been graded down to a useful state for a lot less money. On some, the site differential was a lot less than $12 million."
Even assuming the environmental protections at Bull Creek are indeed "gold-plated," and that the construction will be as minimally invasive as possible, there's still a large open question looming over the project. For the foreseeable future, does the city even need WTP4?
Can Conservation Do It Alone?
Utility planners are natural pessimists, in that they always have to imagine future worst-case scenarios in the present case, planning for enough available water capacity in Austin to meet peak-day demand. Usually arriving on the hottest days of summer, peak days are those that push the city's system capacity to the limit, fluctuating wildly above average demands. (An average day last year was 155 MGD; the peak day was 241 MGD.) City planners ignore those extremes at their peril.
Proponents have long maintained that to meet Austin's demands, WTP4 is needed and soon. The city's WTP4 November newsletter quotes the Water Utility as saying "even with water conservation efforts resulting in peak day water demand savings, Austin will need additional water treatment capacity by the year 2013." The 2013 projection has loomed large in the plant's existence; it's the reason the city dropped its quest to build at Cortaña, as delaying another year for the vireo nesting season to pass would mean WTP4 wouldn't be online by 2013.
The city's current capacity, minus the eventually decommissioned Green, is 285 MGD. Under city projections allowing for no conservation measures peak demand would surpass that amount by 2019. But assuming the success of Leffingwell's reduction goals of 1% (2.5 MGD) a year, by 2019 the city's projected peak day demand would be at 260 MGD 25 MGD below the current capacity. As a precaution, the city also wants to keep peak demand below a 10% safety buffer from the maximum system capacity. That extra 26 MGD would put the city's peak usage to 286 MGD just over its current capacity (see graph at left).
"There's a 10% difference between our [current] system capacity and where our peak will be in 2019," says SOS spokesman Colin Clark. "So when they say we have to have it online now, because of this critical buffer, their own information tells us that date is actually six years later, in 2019." Says Bill Bunch, "If you need a 10% buffer, you've still got it in 2019. This is not a radical goal, but it yields a delay in needing a treatment plant for at least six years."
Leffingwell insists that it isn't that simple. "Based on our recommendations which, at this point, we don't have any insurance the entire council will approve I'm confident we will get our goal of 25 MGD [in savings over 10 years]," says Leffingwell. "But it's also prudent to allow for delays we don't know about," such as construction delays. He cites how bad piping at the Ulrich WTP expansion created a two-year delay.
"Also, all the stuff we're doing is based on projections. Water demand, water use projections. We all know the drought is getting a lot worse. We don't know how worse, but it could well be that those demands will increase if the drought continues on its present track. And finally, we have the likelihood, if not the probability, of lawsuits, which might cause delays. The application to list the Jollyville salamander has been filed, and the decision on whether or not to begin the yearlong process for that listing will start soon. It's very likely we'll be facing lawsuits if that process starts." (Last week, Fish & Wildlife said they were initiating the decision process.) Taking all contingencies into account, Leffingwell said, the time frame "has to be padded a little."
The conservation goals, while admirable, aren't terribly aggressive. SOS makes the case that, instead of garnering 1% savings on a model that sees peak-day demand ever increasing, the city's goal's should be to flatten peak-day demand. They point to Los Angeles, noting that L.A. has kept its water usage approximately the same over the last 20 years, even though L.A. County has grown by 750,000 roughly the population of Austin. And by reining in peak-day demand, the utility could reduce its treatment-plant building costs. In theory, at least, the prospect of a serious ongoing drought would make area residents more resigned to the sort of stringent or mandatory restrictions that have been employed in San Antonio or elsewhere although it's not clear that city officials can effectively anticipate those circumstances.
"Conservation is a harder sell here in Austin than other places," says Leffingwell. Unlike Los Angeles, he argues, "We have a virtually unlimited supply of water. That's not the problem. ... There's a little bit of economical savings, it's environmentally a good thing, but you're not really in this 'we have to save water' situation like if you were in Las Vegas or Phoenix or San Antonio. They have to conserve; it's not such a hard sell. What we're getting right now are, 'Yes, we're conservationists,' but we're not really ready for the cultural change that would be required for the kind of conservation programs that would be necessary if we got into some kind of bind on the construction of this plant."
The counterargument, of course, is that should the city proceed with the construction of a 300 MGD plant, will we ever get any closer to that cultural change? With Lake Travis barely more than 50% full, and the LCRA considering conservation and rationing measures in the face of record-low flows into the lake, does drawing all of Austin's water from the same source make sense? Both Leffingwell and SOS may well be right that a cultural sea change is needed along the lines of the aggressive carbon-curbing environmental agenda just announced by the mayor to fight global warming to make water conservation an easier sell in Austin. But first, that would require a similar transformation at the Austin Water Utility a transformation which, judging from AWU's relentless, two-decade-plus push to hold its course in building a still-not-convincingly-justified Water Treatment Plant No. 4, looks unlikely to happen anytime soon.
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