City Hall Hustle: Hell or High Water

WTP4 opposition increasing – and increasingly not on the same page

With a monster municipal issue like Water Treatment Plant No. 4, not everyone's going to be on the same page. But with a flurry of lawsuits and revolt at one of the plant's staging sites, it's getting so opponents can't agree on why to hate the plant.

The Save Our Springs Alliance has filed one WTP4-related lawsuit, while another waits in the wings. SOS, joined by SOS science officer/University of Texas biology professor Mark Kirkpatrick and Environment Texas, claims U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the city of Austin are in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act in relation to prep work on the plant. Essentially, SOS is arguing that the city and the feds are putting the cart before the horse in preparing a "Candidate Con­ser­vation Agreement With Assur­ances" for the Jollyville Plateau salamander and proceeding with plant construction without taking the necessary environmental precautions. They seek a finding stating that the agreement may not occur before federally required enviro-assessments are carried out and, moreover, that the city "has already undermined the NEPA process" by proceeding with building.

SOS has also issued a separate "notice of intent" to sue the city, the county, and Fish and Wildlife for violations of the Endangered Species Act. The group argues the parties are in violation of the habitat conservation plan governing the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, which will ultimately be crossed by underground tunnels from WTP4's intake center to reservoirs on the other side of the preserve. Interestingly, the notice focuses on the permit holders' failure to protect the preserve's numerous caves –where creepy-crawly karst "species of concern" dwell –and lack of habitat management for birds nesting on the tract, the black-capped vireo and golden-cheeked warbler. In what seems almost an afterthought, the announcement notes, "The City is also violating the permit by pursuing the construction of Water Treatment Plant No. 4 and its intake and transmission tunnels."

While the suit hasn't been filed yet, opposition is already being voiced. Travis County Commissioner Karen Huber stated: "Travis County's significant [Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Preserve] endeavors are a huge asset to our community and its quality of life. I find it truly disappointing and concerning that this legal effort could put the entire and noteworthy BCCP at risk, particularly when Travis County is so close to completion of its land acquisitions and well within the time requirements of doing so."

The suit is another example of SOS' throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach, like simultaneously trumpeting the merits of water conservation while arguing against WTP4-necesitated increases to water rates. But while Huber may be overstating the suit's threat to the BCCP, the fact that SOS' argument could threaten to revoke the preserve's permit is indicative of the lengths they'll go to.

End Transmission

Another front in the WTP4 battle comes to City Hall today (Thursday, Aug. 19), as six northwest Austinites from the Spicewood Springs neighborhood are scheduled to address council during its noontime Citizen Communications period. Their entreaties will certainly echo arguments they've previously made: that, with a tiny triangular plot of parkland in their neighborhood slated to site a crane, staging-grounds, and a large shaft needed to bore and excavate several miles of underground transmission pipes for WTP4's Jollyville transmission line, they'll be subjected to years of loud, traffic-choking, potentially dangerous construction.

An increasingly prominent plank in their opposition is the argument that as affected parties, they weren't notified of the project until plans were well under way. "Residents ...near the proposed Jollyville transmission main route and shafts were not notified of the transmission routes by [Austin Water] before May of this year," Mountain Neighborhood Assoc­i­ation President Eric Deal wrote in an e-mail to council and staff. He states his belief that Austin Water "has intentionally put off design and discussion of the water mains ensure the outcry over the transmission mains didn't stall the plant construction or put the entire project at risk." AW Director Greg Meszaros says: "We started to seek input on the transmission mains in August 2009. ... I do think we notified them; if they're concerned we didn't, we'll try to do better."

The utility is endeavoring to put its wetwork in a better light, at least in regard to the Jollyville line. Test borings previously taken for the line were performed, critics noted, by a contractor not licensed to work in Texas. Hence, the city "requested new borings and piezometers [water pressure gauges] be installed in order to meet all state licensing requirements," according to a news release from Crispin Ruiz at Group Solutions RJW ("a public involvement firm that specializes in group communications and consensus building," according to its website), speaking on behalf of "The Jollyville Team." Promising that "the old borings will be filled," work on the new ones is slated to start Aug. 23 –a day before school starts at nearby Canyon Vista Middle School, which we'll surely hear from the Spicewood Springs speakers.

No Rest for the Wicked

Obscured by the city's piecemeal approval process –a construction contract here, a Chapter 26 hearing there – and arguably SOS' separate lawsuits, is the broader question of whether WTP4 is still needed. However, despite the water-torture-like drip of alarming news about the plant, opinions have done little but solidify on both sides.

"Finally, when can we give it a rest?" Mayor Lee Leffingwell recently told the Chronicle. "WTP4 is almost half funded and well under construction now – to abandon it now would be the epitome of fiscal irresponsibility." Lef­fing­well makes the other traditional arguments for WTP4, citing greenhouse gases saved by not having to pump water uphill, that both the Davis and Ulrich treatment plants "are virtually co-located on Lake Austin, posing a security risk," and "will be well in excess of their useful lives by 2050." On the other hand, opponents such as SOS still see conservation as the most ecologically friendly, financially prudent alternative to proceeding with WTP4 –a view certainly shared by the three on the dais who continue to oppose the plant (Laura Mo­rri­son, Chris Riley, and Bill Spelman). And meanwhile, the denizens of Spicewood Springs stand against the plant on their own grounds.

While there are different, complementary arguments about why to take WTP4 on a different track, with a narrow council majority still holding, perhaps the question should be how to do so.

Wade into the Hustle's weekly e-mail recap. Sign up at

Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

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?
WTP4: Running on Overruns?
Austin Water wants more money for WTP4

Mike Kanin, Oct. 19, 2012

More City Hall Hustle
City Hall Hustle: The Hustle Bids Farewell ...
City Hall Hustle: The Hustle Bids Farewell ...
To the beating hearts of a great city

Wells Dunbar, Dec. 30, 2011

City Hall Hustle: The Fires This Time
City Hall Hustle: The Fires This Time
Austin's feverish summer a tinderbox for rumination

Wells Dunbar, Sept. 9, 2011


Water Treatment Plant No. 4, Water Treatment Plant No. 4 , Save Our Springs Alliance, Spicewood Springs, Jollyville transmission line, Lee Leffingwell

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Behind the scenes at The Austin Chronicle

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle