Point Austin: More Water Under the Bridge

Reading the political currents flowing through WTP4

Point Austin
For old Austin hands, there was an undeniably surreal aspect to the Water Treatment Plant No. 4 debate last Thursday night at the Palmer Events Center. Not so much the issue itself – although if Dr. Who happened to stop by in the TARDIS, he might have wondered, "Haven't I been here several times before?" – but the physical assembly of teams on the dais. Speaking for the Austin Water Utility (along with Director Greg Meszaros and a brace of water wonks) was none other than former City Council member (and former Austin Chronicle politics editor) Daryl Slusher, once a standard-bearer of the local green revolution, now an AWU vice president and politically prominent defender of the need to build WTP4.

On the other side, inevitably arrayed against the plan, were Save Our Springs Alliance firebrand Bill Bunch (alongside SOS spokesman Colin Clark, aka Mini-Bunch), and a revolving team of allied enviros (Luke Metzger of Environment Texas, Amy Hardberger of Environmental Defense Fund, and green energy activist Paul Robbins). Metzger pointedly noted that every local environmental group is opposed to the WTP4 project, although that might as readily be attributed to groupthink and overlapping memberships as the facts on the ground. The surprising face on the dais was ChangeAustinite Brian Rodgers, best known for his unsuccessful anti-Domain campaign and, more recently, an innovative anti-property tax effort against the Travis County Appraisal District.

Brief sparks flew between Bunch and Slusher over possible Eastside or far eastern alternatives to the northwest WTP4 – possibilities both far downstream and previously excoriated by environmentalists as racist anathema – during a segment that might have been designated, "Let's throw everything against the wall and see what sticks." But on the whole it was an informative, civil discussion – sometimes tediously so, as moderator Jim Walker nervously warned against the slightest public expression of enthusiasm – with the crowd politely applauding every speaker, and apparently evenly split between pros and cons (and reporters duly alerted by each that the other had "packed the hall").

Water or Money?

Slusher has been relegated to green exile ever since he was elected to council and began to represent the whole city instead of Barton Springs alone, and his ascension to environmental maven at AWU has apparently not provided redemption (indeed, quite the opposite). But Rodgers' prominence highlighted not only the recent, tenuous alliance of convenience between some environmentalists and the local libertarians-at-large, but also what turned out to be the opponents' primary argument against WTP4: that it just costs too much.

The explicitly environmental objections to the project are largely speculative and fairly thin – this is not, after all, a toll road – and mostly the theme is that buying a "$1 billion boondoggle" (a figure that includes interest) will both invite profligate usage and preclude greater spending on conservation. But that puts the opponents in the awkward (and often incoherent) position of simultaneously congratulating the utility on its fledgling success at saving water and blasting the officials for not doing more. Rodgers, for example, praised AWU staff for their superior maintenance of the Ullrich and Davis plants (while dismissing any strains on capacity), accused the utility of mounting a "scare campaign" over potential breakdowns, and denounced last year's closing of the Green plant as motivated by – sneered real estate investor Rodgers – "a real estate deal." (Having long since lost the battle over closing Green, opponents are not about to surrender.)

The "high cost" argument invariably ruled the evening, with opponents finally insisting, libertarian-style, that the city shouldn't be spending so much money "during a recession" – when in fact, as we've forcibly seen in the past year, that's one more big reason for doing major infrastructure projects now.

A Drop to Drink

The rhetorical low point was Metzger's attempt to compare project supporters to Dick Cheney and the former VP's cavalier dismissal of energy conservation – judging from the audience murmurs, the analogy fell pretty flat. In the end, it would seem that both supporters and opponents of WTP4 would like the argument to be more polarized than it in fact is. We've already managed to delay the plant by more than 20 years, through a combination of conservation and Austin's herky-jerky politics – and we could likely survive a few more years' delay; but by the same token, there's a strong, practical argument for resource foresight, and the council members (officially in session for the Palmer forum) are no doubt thinking long and hard about that obligation.

Indeed, it seems to me that the best defense of the initial phase of the WTP4 project – a 50-million-gallons-per-day capacity addition, with the optional potential of 250 MGD more – is the simplest: In closing Green, we've withdrawn 42 MGDs of capacity; replacing it with 50 MGD (with consequent redundancy for existing capacity) seems only sensible. Based on the arguments of both sides, that should hold us for a good, long time – and if it doesn't, we can decide whether to build that bridge when we come to it.

The council, the utility, and the city as a whole are clearly committed to conservation – not yet fully enough to satisfy every last activist, but that day will frankly never come. The alternatives offered last week – reopening Green, building another plant on Lady Bird Lake (in order to catch a few symbolic gallons of Springs water), Eastside groundwater – barely even qualify as pipe dreams. Most curiously of all, opponents vaguely suggested exploring pumping water, uphill, from the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer, some 40 miles downstream – pipeline costs alone are estimated in the hundreds of millions. Oddly enough, that's a proposal most prominently promoted by superlawyer Pete Winstead and his speculator partners (Sustainable Water Resources), and – even odder – a cause recently taken up by none other than newly indigent (or so he says) Gary Bradley, a name heretofore synonymous in local environmental circles with the Devil His Own Self.

As I said, it was a sometimes surreal evening, and may have had more to say about the curious deformations of Austin politics than about the heavily foreshadowed South­west­ern water wars. We're not likely to entirely run dry, on either resource, in the next few years.

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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?
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Austin Water wants more money for WTP4

Mike Kanin, Oct. 19, 2012

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Water Treatment Plant No. 4, Austin Water Utility, Daryl Slusher, Bill Bunch, Save Our Springs Alliance, Barton Springs

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