The $360 Million Question: Where to Put WTP4?
City Council is re-re-rethinking WTP4
Rumblings about the future of Water Treatment Plant No. 4 -- the ecologically fraught, increasingly expensive plant currently undergoing site preparation at the headwaters of Bull Creek -- took another odd turn at last Thursday's City Council meeting, when Lee Leffingwell moved to delay further construction for one year. The motion, coming from the plant's most active council supporter, signifies WTP4's growing political radioactivity. The delay may cool heated opinions on WTP4, but it's no abandonment of the long-delayed and much-maligned project. It looks likely instead to rekindle the debate -- with Travis Co. Commissioners Court and within council itself -- over other possible locations.
Like water circling the drain only to collect in a clogged pipe, WTP4 is stoppered but not yet dead.
At the beginning of this year, the debate over a site for WTP4 -- originally conceived in the 1980s with an ultimate output of 300 million gallons a day -- looked effectively ended. Citing time constraints, the city ended its conversation with county commissioners on the Cortaña tract, lands co-managed with the county in the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve. The city declared it would build WTP4 at its original (and just as controversial) site near Bull Creek.
Since then, the extensive "environmental commissioning" at Bull Creek (including an experimental design placing water tanks above ground, in order not to disturb the delicate karst features under the land nor the endangered invertebrates that nest there), along with other "operational improvements," had swelled the plant's price tag to more than $355 million. In late July, Save Our Springs Alliance filed an appeal against the Zoning and Platting Commission's decision to approve the construction of storm-water retention ponds. Around that same time, the Environmental Board called for a holistic Cumulative Effects Assessment for the entire project. Overnight, WTP4 was back in the headlines, bringing nothing but bad news.
For the Aug. 9 council meeting, Mike Martinez, Jennifer Kim, and Brewster McCracken posted a discussion item to explore, in McCracken's words, the "long shot" of a joint treatment plant for Austin and Leander, Round Rock, and Cedar Park (heretofore uninterested, and as of last week, officially so). But that was hardly the end of it. "Our site selection has been driven by a criteria of having to accommodate a 300-MGD plant," McCracken told the Chronicle prior to Thursday's vote. "That's led city staff to say there are only a few tracts big enough: Cortaña and Bull Creek. What I've asked instead is, 'What about sites that could accommodate a 200-MGD or a 150-MGD plant?' Potential other sites emerge."
He was alluding to the privately held Lucas tract or swaths of the nearby Schlumberger lands -- not as ecologically fragile but rejected as too small for a 300-MGD plant. WTP4's initial capacity is projected at 50 MGD; with that in mind, McCracken said he wants to determine whether building a smaller new plant while expanding an existing one can meet estimated needs. He asked Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza (who oversees the Water Utility) for information on sites that could accommodate smaller plants; Garza said that shrinking to a 200-MGD or 150-MGD plant could save several acres of footprint.
Leffingwell's alternate motion -- delaying Bull Creek construction for a year, endorsing the Environmental Board's cumulative impact assessment, and looking at old and new sites alike -- seemed a surprise. But his earlier motion -- postponing until next month the hearing on the SOS Alliance storm-water pond appeal -- had signaled his willingness to slow down WTP4. To the plant's advocates, time had always been of the essence; either the bird-nesting season or Austin's looming water needs dictated that construction begin immediately. (That haste had backfired at Commissioners Court, where the commissioners perceived it as bullying and refused to sign off on the Cortaña site.) Afterward, Leffingwell said the delay was made possible by council's adoption of his water-conservation program, including prohibitions on outdoor watering that also passed unanimously. "They're savings that will get very sustainable, predictable results," he said, "giving us a couple extra years."
With Leffingwell facing re-election next year -- and an increasingly likely 2009 mayoral run -- it's easy to imagine WTP4 as a campaign issue and a potential dent in his otherwise formidable enviro credentials. On the other hand, McCracken's sudden emergence on WTP4 and his challenge to build a smaller plant are in opposition to Leffingwell's longstanding support for a full 300 MGD. For McCracken, widely expected to oppose Leffingwell in 2009, it's an attack on his opponent's strengths. Leffingwell's motion appears designed to cool tempers for the moment but not fundamentally to waver from eventual construction of WTP4. He quickly issued a statement -- "Why I Asked the Council to Stop Construction of Water Treatment Plant 4 at Bull Creek" -- still endorsing a deep-water intake at Lake Travis for a 300-MGD plant, a project only the Bull Creek or Cortaña sites likely could provide.
Beyond the backroom political considerations, there are likely two more reasons for the delay. The first is to make the case for Cortaña to the county once more. In announcing her opposition to building in the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt said she felt the city hadn't fully exhausted all its alternatives. Leffingwell's call for a "re-examination of previously reviewed sites, including Cortaña, and the examination of new potential sites," looks tailored to satisfy that requirement -- but county acceptance is far from certain. "As for the rapprochement on Cortaña, from what I can tell, nothing has changed," said Eckhardt, citing the legal requirement that preserve lands be used for development only if no "feasible or prudent" alternative exists. While she thinks "the probability of Cortaña being the only feasible and prudent site in all of Travis County is questionable," Eckhardt suggested that the county's ongoing obligation to buy more preserve land could benefit the city, via a trade. "We could do some sort of swap" -- buying a private tract and trading it with the city for Bull Creek.
The second reason is closer to home: In a year's time, retiring City Manager Toby Futrell will be gone. As a city staff conception and creation from its start, WTP4 is long rumored to have been kept alive primarily by a staff that has invested decades of work and money in the 300-MGD project that wouldn't die.