Beside the Point: Trust Us, We're the Water Utility

AWU's vows to deliver on WTP4 and conservation just don't wash

Today, City Council will vote – most likely in favor on a narrow 4-3 margin – on a $3.1 million contract that would begin excavation of a pump station for Water Treatment Plant No. 4. The vote marks a crucial turning point in the utility's 25-year battle to build a new water treatment plant. "All of the votes we've taken up to now – this council as well as prior councils – have been related to design," Council Member Randi Shade told the Chronicle. "This will be the first actual excavation and construction to take place on this site, so that's significant. We're going to start turning land."

In making this decision to turn land, is the council also making a decision to turn its back on its commitment to environmental stewardship? The utility and its supporters – most prominently the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, as well as the mayor and Council Members Sheryl Cole, Mike Martinez, and Shade – say no. They argue that not only will WTP4 prevent us from certain doom in terms of water supply but that it will lighten the city's carbon footprint, provide needed construction jobs (while taking advantage of current low, low prices), and, most significantly, complement conservation efforts.

Meanwhile, the plant's critics – environmental, consumer, and neighborhood groups (including Liveable City, Gray Panthers, Austin Neighborhood Coun­cil, and Silicon Laboratories Vice President Tyson Tuttle), as well as Council Members Laura Morrison, Chris Riley, and Bill Spelman – say the plant can wait. Conservation, they say, can accomplish what WTP4 can, while at the same time avoiding the CO2 emissions from plant construction (not included in the utility's estimates), providing needed green jobs, and not only dodging the $1 billion price tag but, according to Spelman, saving some $30 million if we delayed the project just three years. Plus, as University of Texas associate professor Kent Butler recently put it, putting it off would also ensure "a significantly larger customer base" for spreading out the plant's cost.

So who's right? Despite pointed rhetoric suggesting that one side is perhaps a little loony and the other one infinitely rational and patient (you can figure for yourself which is which), the fact is, persuasive arguments can be made on both sides. But we can't help but come down on the side of conservation as the first priority in a policy decision dealing with one of our most precious resources.

The Austin Water Utility wants us to believe we can have our cake and eat it too – that we can spend nearly $1 billion (a figure that includes interest) on the plant and still have enough money and resources left over for the kinds of aggressive water-saving measures appropriate to a region growing ever more drought-prone. This is a story we like, and we had thought that the September debate between AWU backers and opponents – with so many Water Utility customers in attendance – would be the perfect forum to hear it. We liked the idea that AWU could take advantage of low construction costs and lighten the city's carbon footprint while also enacting sane measures that actually treat a limited resource like a limited resource. But our narrator left us hanging. We saw graph after graph purporting to illustrate the need for WTP4, but we saw nothing illustrating exactly how AWU planned to carry out conservation measures so that enough water remains to be treated in the first place.

You Call This a Plan?

If the utility is so hot on following through with both building WTP4 and aggressively saving water, why hasn't it wowed us equally with both halves of the story? Perhaps it's because AWU's feckless conservation proposal – which the utility couldn't even be bothered to submit until months past the Texas Commission on Environmental Qual­ity's May deadline – does nothing to bolster AWU's credibility and isn't nearly as dazzling as its elaborate plans to build, build, build. (See the conservation plan for yourself here.)

Perhaps Council Members Morrison, Riley, and Spelman were thinking the same thing this week when they drafted a resolution directing the city manager to, basically, fill in AWU's conspicuous blanks. We applaud the effort, which would require development of an "integrated water management plan" aimed at positioning Austin as a conservation leader and addressing "demand, drought, regional supply, sustainable resources and infrastructure management." But we also find it insulting that the utility couldn't bring itself to do this on its own in the first place.

As it happens, the foot-dragging on a water management plan can be attributed in part to some human resources issues within the utility's conservation division – the former manager has since been reassigned to another city department. Morrison sees the vacancy in the department as a prime opportunity to hire a leader who can take Austin to the next level on conservation. She points to San Antonio's successful water conservation program as a model of fiscal responsibility. Acknowledging the local business lobby's mantra that WTP4 would ensure Austin's economic future, Morrison also looks to San Antonio as an example of how a major city can remain economically vital – not in spite of its aggressive conservation policy but because of it. "They guarantee water to the businesses and work with them on conservation," Morrison said.

Supporters of WTP4 insist that it won't compromise the city's conservation efforts. And we hope they're right. But if they are, it's nothing to be cavalier about. Doesn't a plan to spend more money while selling less water sound like a great way to ensure troubled financial waters ahead? Cole doesn't think so. "Having adequate water supply is my primary concern, and I think we can do both," she said. "I do think that Austin can have San Antonio's conservation," she added, "without having San Anton­io's water supply problems." Let's hope so. And while we're at it, let's hope we can avoid California's water problems, too. It, too, succeeded in achieving both conservation and increased supply, says Butler – after which it had to hike water rates substantially to make up for it. The Morrison-Riley-Spelman proposal calls for protecting Austin's small businesses and low-income ratepayers from just such a scenario. We'd prefer simply to avoid that scenario altogether.

Michael King is off fishing and will return next week.

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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

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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, water conservation

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