Letter to City Council

Reasons why the city should forestall WTP 4

December 11, 2008

Hon. Will Wynn, Mayor

Hon. Brewster McCracken, Mayor Pro Tem, & Members of the Austin City Council

Marc Ott, City Manager

Greg Meszaros, Director, Austin Water Utility

Austin, Texas

Via Hand-Delivery

Re: Request to focus efforts on water conservation, reuse and planning instead of committing $400 million more of bond debt to expanded water treatment capacity

Mayor Wynn, Members of Council, and Mssrs. Ott and Meszaros:

This year the Austin Water Utility made its first significant step towards prioritizing water conservation and reuse and eliminating water waste. Austin citizens responded in kind, reducing peak summer water use by more than 20 million gallons per day (MGD) over our all time record peak day use of 240.3 MGD in the summer of 2001. This peak day reduction far exceeded the council-approved goal of reducing the rate of growth in peak day water demands one percent per year less than population growth.

This major reduction in peak day water demands is particularly significant in light of three key facts:

* This was one of the hottest and driest summers on record. Thus, our summer peak day water demand (driven primarily by lawn and landscape watering) reflected a true peak under extreme conditions.

* Austin Water Utility's estimated population served increased from 754,470 in 2001 to an estimated 850,505 in 2008. This means our peak day water demands dropped from 318 gallons per capita per day (gpcd) in 2001 to 257 gpcd in 2008.

* Austin Water Utility has just begun to focus on conservation and reuse, and many cost-saving strategies for conservation and reuse have yet to begin or have only barely begun. Thus it is clear that the potential for reducing peak day water demands is much greater than the current goal set by the City.

Our success in reducing 2008 peak day demands – a success shared by the Water Utility and its customers, the citizens of Austin – warrants a revisiting of both the "one percent per year" goal and the underlying assumptions driving the City's current rush to build Water Treatment Plant No. 4 by 2014.

What is now clear is that we can do much better than a one percent per year reduction from population growth trends and that we can safely postpone building WTP4 for many years to come. Doing so will save Austin Water Utility ratepayers tens of millions of dollars while also saving energy, reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, protecting Lake Travis' recreational values, protecting fish and wildlife in the Colorado River, and reducing pumping pressures on Barton Springs.

Our current water treatment capacity totals 285 MGD. That is 118 MGD at the Davis plant and 167 MGD at the Ulrich plant. Based on this treatment capacity and the projected growth in peak day demands, in 2005/2006 the Water Utility under City Manager Toby Futrell and Utility Director Chris Lippe urged Council to move forward immediately so that WTP4 would be on line in 2011. Staff then recognized that peak demands were not growing as expected, such that the WTP4 completion date could be safely pushed back to 2014. This allowed the City to reconsider the location of the plant, and to find a site outside of the Bull Creek Preserve.

As the attached chart depicts in blue, even if we only follow the "one percent per year rate of growth reduction" goal, starting at 219 MGD in 2008, we do not come close to needing additional treatment capacity for many years to come. This is a major change from peak day demand growth projected in 2006/2007. We can now safely postpone adding additional treatment capacity for many years (even when factoring in the Water Utility's 10 percent safety buffer).

We therefore ask that you take steps now to stop spending many millions of dollars on design, planning and preliminary engineering for WTP4 and its transmission mains until the City's new comprehensive plan is completed.

The Austin City Charter makes clear that the provision of water, resource conservation, and major capital improvements are all key elements in comprehensive planning. Specifically, Article X, Section 5 of the City Charter provides in pertinent part:

"The comprehensive plan shall include the following elements: (1) a future land use element; (2) a traffic circulation and mass transit element; (3) a wastewater, solid waste, drainage and potable water element; (4) a conservation and environmental resources element; (5) a recreation and open space element; (6) a housing element; (7) a public services and facilities element, which shall include but not be limited to a capital improvement program; . . ."

If Austin commits another $400 million of bonded indebtedness to WTP4, in addition to the roughly $100 million that has already been spent, then the water and resource conservation components of the comprehensive planning process will be pre-determined and thus largely meaningless.

In summary, WTP4 can and should be put on hold until our comprehensive planning process is completed for the following reasons:

1. The City's own numbers show we do not need additional treatment capacity for many years to come (see referenced chart).

2. We can avoid spending $400 million dollars, while investing a small fraction of this amount in conservation and reuse. By the Austin Water Utility's own estimate we save $14.3 million dollars every year WTP4 is postponed. (See December 2006 savings analysis excerpted and attached along with the peak day demands chart.)

3. We still waste a lot of water, so there is plenty of room to continue reducing peak day demands and accommodating growth with current treatment capacity.

4. We help protect the recreational enjoyment of Lake Travis and the associated recreational businesses.

5. We better protect Colorado River fish and wildlife habitats.

6. We make investments, establish practices, and provide leadership for water utilities in the Buda/Kyle region charged with protecting Barton Springs flows during times of drought, and for Round Rock, Cedar Park, and Leander, who are also considering major capital expenditures for expanded water treatment capacity.

7. We reduce greenhouse gas emissions – treating water, pushing it around, and treating the sewage, consumes enormous amounts of energy.

8. We increase our water security in the face of rapid climate change – by being efficient, we will be more resilient and secure in the years ahead when climate models predict that higher temperatures will cause substantially increased rates of evaporation (and thus less water available).

9. Comprehensive planning may reveal that long-term water needs can be met by strategies that are more flexible, affordable and sustainable than WTP4.

Perhaps most critical, however, is that once the Water Utility issues $400 million in bond debt for WTP4, it will then have to encourage water waste for decades to come in order to pay off this enormous debt.

We cannot, in good faith, claim to be serious about fiscal responsibility, energy conservation and efficiency, water conservation and reuse, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, preparing wisely for a changing climate, building a sustainable city, or planning comprehensively, unless we prioritize investment in conservation and reuse now rather than expanding water treatment capacity.

The citizens of Austin are eager to conserve water and have Austin live up to its reputation as a leader in environmental protection. Our entire metro region needs Austin to show real leadership in saving and reusing water, saving energy, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We ask that you embrace these ideals and at the same time save ratepayers tens of millions of dollars during these tough economic times by postponing further work on WTP4 until we complete our new comprehensive plan.

Thank you for your consideration. We look forward to speaking with each of you further on this matter in the days ahead.


Christopher Lehman, Chair
Austin Regional Group, Sierra Club

Roy Waley, Vice Chair
Austin Regional Group, Sierra Club

David Foster, Program Director
Clean Water Action

Connie Ripley
Don't Empty Lake Travis Association (DELTA)

Luke Metzger
Environment Texas

Christy Muse
Hill Country Alliance

Ken Kramer
Lone Star Chapter, Sierra Club

Norman Johns
National Wildlife Federation

Bill Bunch
Save Our Springs Alliance


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