Don't rush into a wasteful water treatment project
Bill Bunch, Local Contributor
Published on statesman.com at 7:01 p.m. Sunday Aug. 14, 2011
Published in the Austin American-Statesman on Monday Aug 15, 2011
If, as a city, we are going to disagree about something as important and costly as a $500 million water plant (plus decades of interest payments) we should at least start with the same relevant facts. Our city manager and Austin Water Utility should provide those facts. They have failed over and over.
Last summer the water utility said that rates for the average residential customer would go up 36 percent over five years, including a 7.8 percent increase for the coming year.
This year, the water utility proposes a 5-year increase of 66 percent, starting with a 25 percent hike this year alone. For those using the least amount of water, including those who can least afford it, bills will go up 65 percent starting Oct. 1.
Last fall, the utility told the council and investors buying water utility bonds that total water use and peak summer demands were going up. Increasing water sales would pay off the bonds without excessive rate hikes.
Now the utility has been forced to admit that water use and peak demands are flat or declining. Its claims for needing additional treatment capacity soon were wrong.
Now the utility argues that we need to complete the plant because of the risks of operating on only two aging plants.
But the utility's own internal risk assessment does not mention a word about any such risk. Had there been any, the utility would have never shut down our original Green plant in 2008, years ahead of schedule (but after 80 years of service).
The water utility insists the capital costs of the plant only account for an 8.6 percent share of the skyrocketing rates. But plant capital costs alone constitute almost 20 percent of the entire water side of the utility's budget and the vast majority of increasing costs.
The water utility also says the project is under its $508 million budget. But large cost overruns have been covered up by the utility lopping off one of two transmission tunnels that was always integral to the project and included in the $508 million budget. With three more years of construction ahead, and some unanswered regulatory questions, cost overruns are likely to continue piling up.
It's time to call a time out, get the facts and evaluate our options for providing a safe and affordable water supply for our growing city.
Rushing ahead with a project that is only 15 percent complete, that won't be needed for 15 years or more, and that continues to be justified with misleading information and unfounded scare tactics benefits no one but the contractors.
By contrast, committing hundreds of millions more to a project that won't add a single drop to our water supply will do several kinds of harm to Austin's water future. It will rob limited funds from those investments that will actually help build a secure, water-efficient economy for Austin: fixing and replacing hundreds of miles of old, failing pipes that leak billions of gallons of water into the ground each year; expanding our barely-started reclaimed water system; and investing in cost-effective efficiency measures that extend our water supply while saving money for residents and businesses.
Building upstream, while abandoning one of the largest and most reliable tributaries to the Colorado River, the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer, as a source of city water diminishes rather than diversifies Austin's water supply. How can that be a good idea?
We now know that historic projections of water available from the Colorado are unreliable as our climate dries out and our reservoirs fill with sediment. The utility hurts Austin by refusing to even evaluate supplementing our surface water supplies with conjunctive use groundwater before committing so much more money.
Our city charter requires that water be included in our comprehensive plan. Yet meeting our future water needs is completely missing from the ongoing comprehensive plan process. The utility's last real water plan was completed in 1994.
Postponing the treatment plant would allow our community to develop a real plan for meeting our future water needs, one that would likely unite rather than divide our city. Or we can continue throwing good money after bad and praying that it does not get worse.
Bunch, a lawyer, is executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance.
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