Chamber Raises a Glass to WTP4

WTP4 supporters are a who's who collection of business interests

At last Thursday's city-sponsored Palmer Center debate over Water Treatment Plant No. 4, the opposing arguments could be reduced to two simple propositions: Setting aside an ocean of environmental and economic issues, the question boiled down to whether our water needs would be best served by building the plant or instead by utilizing the Austin Water Utility's resources toward greater conservation.

And apart from the speakers on the dais, yet another front in the PR ground war over the plant opened: the emergence of We Want Water, a pro-WTP4 campaign headed by the Austin Chamber of Commerce.

To an extent, thus far the debate over WTP4 has been defined by its opposition: Environmental groups, chief among them the Save Our Springs Alliance, but also Clean Water Action, Environment Texas, and the Sierra Club, among others, have questioned the need for the plant, going toe-to-toe with the Water Utility (and a few random contractors) as their opponents. Last week, the pro-WTP4 parties coalesced into the We Want Water campaign. Led by the chamber (in turn comprised of some 2,500 member companies and groups), the campaign has come out in favor of building the plant – now. "The Austin Water Department estimates that, even with greater conservation efforts, the city's water needs will outpace current capacity within 7 years," reads a flier passed out at the debate, referring to controversial utility projections that have been the subject of much interpretation. "A new plant could be online in 4-5 years and would prevent a potentially serious water shortage."

The campaign was developed recently "as part of a unifying, comprehensive strategy looking at not only Water Treatment Plant 4 but use of reclaimed water and conservation," said Jeremy Martin, senior vice president for government relations. He says that "some of the partners working on this campaign specifically" include the Building Owners and Managers Association of Austin and the Austin Apartment Association – groups, as it happens, that bristled at 2007 watering regulations born of then-Council Member Lee Leffingwell's Water Conservation Task Force. Martin also cites the Asian American and Hispanic chambers of commerce, the Austin Board of Realtors, and the Real Estate Council of Austin, among others supporting construction, as having encouraged their members to attend the debate. (That may explain the number of business-casual-clad attendees clutching signs declaring, "Build It!" and placards with the We Want Water logo – a water drop emblazoned with a check mark.) The halls also buzzed over a WTP4 phone poll that some described as a "push poll" favoring the plant; Martin denied any involvement, saying, "The chamber has not done any polling on this issue."

Water or no water, WTP4 is big business. The city has already spent $55.7 million at the since-abandoned original site and another $52.7 million at the plant's current site at Bullick Hollow. The utility currently estimates a 50-million-gallon-per-day build-out – a fraction of the long-term potential of 300 MGD build-out – at $508 million (a price tag Save Our Springs points out doesn't include interest on the money the utility would need to borrow). This spending, coupled with potential profits for developers and engineers who will build east of Austin, near the State Highway 130 corridor, where the city hopes to seat future growth – and which WTP4 in part is designed to serve – must have served as a wake-up call for the local business community to show its support. Concludes Martin, "We are encouraging our council members to keep moving forward on Water Treatment Plant 4."

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