Point Austin: Water, Water (Plant) Everywhere

Stop me if you've heard this one before, because you have

Point Austin
One of the odder quirks of the still festering debate over the Water Treatment Plant No. 4 project – now well under way, it's worth noting – is the unlikely opposition coalition among hardcore environmentalists (primarily Save Our Springs Alliance) and anti-government, anti-taxers like Change Austin, whose last standard-bearer was Carole Keeton Strayhorn. It's reminiscent of similar current marriages of convenience in D.C., where the anti-deficit chorus now includes centrist Dems (among them the prez), Blue Dogs, and inevitably the GOP lockdown crew. This argument would make more sense if the only tangible national economic activity weren't largely a result of the minimal (and quickly disappearing) federal stimulus spending – and the simple fact that in a recession, the government must provide demand (and jobs) when the private sector falters.

Here at home, one anti-WTP4 argument (complete with a sensational doubling of the price tag by citing interest) has been that a recession is no time to invest in a major infrastructure project. Proponents argue just the opposite. Mayor Lee Leffingwell told me: "It's precisely the right time to do this kind of project. Over the last 18 months ... the city's public works projects have come in over 30 percent below their planned costs. And that's simply because the materials and labor, and the competitive market, make it a lot cheaper to do this kind of thing now." (He went on to note that plenty of major projects – for example, the UT Tower – were built during the Great Depression.)

I asked Council Member Bill Spelman (who believes the city should wait on WTP4 to be certain of the need) what he thinks of the timing argument, especially since the first phase of the plant, at 50 million gallons per day, is not a dramatic expansion and essentially only replaces and modernizes the 42 MGD capacity of the decommissioned Green Water Treatment Plant. "If it were free," said Spel­man, "I would certainly be in favor of another water treatment plant. Getting your water from separate sources is always a good idea. But the timing is not good from the point of view of the ratepayer, and the cost is very high."

Argues Leffingwell, "We've got this manageable cost of three or four dollars per month [per average ratepayer] for a few years here, to insure our health and safety through water security in the future."

Proaction vs. Prudence

The series of contract votes on the project have been a steady 4-3, with the mayor, Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez, and council members Randi Shade and Sheryl Cole in the majority. Opponents have publicly targeted Cole as a potential swing vote – although stopping the project midstream seems a dubious strategy – but when she returned my call, Cole began stoutly, "I'm not changing my vote on Water Treatment Plant 4!" She said the presumption that she's wavering began as joking banter with opponents that they've unilaterally decided to take seriously.

Seconding the mayor's arguments, Cole said simply: "I just think we're going to have the need. The essence of the [opponents'] argument is to restrain growth," she added, "and while I'm not a pro-growth person, I just think it's the reality [for Austin's future]." She said she's not happy at the price tag either – "everything we buy, in my opinion as chair of [the] Audit and Finance [Committee], costs too much" – but she insists the need will be there sooner or later, and it's time to bite the bullet now. "We can still do the conservation; the two are not mutually exclusive."

Spelman acknowledges that he sees little prospect of movement on the council – he, Chris Riley (who campaigned against the plant), and Laura Morrison appear locked in against – and that there is simply a strong difference of opinion on whether the plant will be needed in the next few years. His own research has convinced him that the persistent long-term local trend is toward less water usage per capita. "I think the most prudent thing for us to do is to wait a few years and see if the trend does abate," he told me, "and if it does, we'll have plenty of time to build a new water treatment plant."

"My rhetorical question is," asks Leffing­well, "What if you're wrong? ... We're trying to make the best decision that we can on what we think those needs are going to be. If I'm wrong, we've got a water plant a couple of years ahead of time; if they're wrong, we're going to have serious problems."

Déjà Vu Already

The bitter tenor of some of the public hearings – which council members say has not affected their own discussions – might suggest there is a broad public groundswell against the plant. Some of the opponents seem unable to distinguish between a water treatment plant and a gasoline tank farm or a petrochemical facility. Like too much of our current politics, the debate has steadily degenerated into variations of, "You're not just wrong, you're evil." But Leffingwell argues bluntly that the headline arguments are not representative of overall public opinion.

Citing opinion polls taken over the past year, he said, "I don't think getting 50 people to come into council and sign up to speak against it is any indication of public sentiment." Leffingwell said the polling he's seen supports the project "three or four to one" or better. Austin Water spokesman Jason Hill says a March survey by EnviroMedia found 48% of respondents supporting the project, 41% unsure, and only 12% "opposed or strongly opposed." A privately conducted fall survey I've seen reflected even stronger support, even when responders were advised of the potential effect on rates. "Most people," concluded Leffingwell, "agree with me, I think, saying, 'Hey, I don't want to take a chance of running short of water.'"

So that's where we are. The two sides, on council and off, appear confirmed in their positions, with the arguments (or the votes) unlikely to change much over the ensuing budgetary discussions or any continuing contractual votes. The mayor is anticipating more of the same. "Frankly, I am surprised that at this point we can't put that issue to rest," said Leffingwell of the ongoing debate, "and realize that we've really made the decision, and we should go ahead and carry it out at this point. ... I would only say that it's a little disappointing that it's gotten to the point that it has, that people can't respect other people, and just say, he or she's got a different opinion."

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Austin WaterCity Council, City Council, Water Treatment Plant No. 4, Lee Leffingwell, Bill Spelman, Sheryl Cole

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