City Council approves over $6 million for unnecessary water treatment plant work

Late Thursday night, the Austin City Council approved two items by a 6-1 vote, totaling $6.4 million, for work on the proposed Water Treatment Plant 4 near Lake Travis. Save Our Springs Alliance, Austin Sierra Club, Clean Water Action, and Environment Texas all asked the Council to save the $6.4 million and focus on water conservation. Council Member Laura Morrison voted against the unnecessary spending (thanks, Laura!).

The main proponents of the spending? The chamber of commerce and the contractors who are eager for the full $500 million the Water Utility wants to shower on them, while ratepayers fork over more than a billion dollars when the interest is factored in. The $6.4 million goes toward a construction manager and expanding a road leading to the treatment plant site, at 620 and Bullick Hollow Road.

Council Members noted that this spending does not commit the City to the full construction project. That "point of no return" is now claimed to be October, which means we don’t have long to convince our elected officials to focus on reducing demand for water rather than increasing treatment supply (on a lake that is drying up). All while saving ratepayers a cool billion dollars.

To put the $6.4 million in context, the entire proposed budget for water conservation is $6.68 million! Imagine how much water we could save and how much smarter and more efficient with water we could be if Council had allocated that $6.4 million to the water conservation budget instead of flushing money down the drain.

$6 million can buy thousands of low flush toilets for restaurants, schools, offices, and other businesses.

With an extra $6 million, the city could spread the watering schedule across town and encourage calls to 311 to report water waste.

With an additional $6 million, we could start a Pecan Street Project for water.

But instead the $6 million is going to a road builder and an engineering firm.

The bigger picture includes the need to shift the City of Austin’s attitude, practice, and philosophy regarding water from water seller and water mover to water steward. The Austin Water Utility is stuck in a 20th century (some might say 19th century) approach of "big pipes." You stick a big pipe in a lake, push the water through more big pipes to a big treatment plant, treat it, send it out in big pipes across town. Then all the water used indoors goes into sewer pipes that lead to cross-town interceptor pipes on to the wastewater treatment plant. This approach is enormously energy-intensive and prone to leaks and overflows.

A 21st century approach includes collecting rainwater and using it where it is collected; re-using indoor graywater (bathtub water and the like) for toilet water and outdoor watering; using stormwater from parking lots to irrigate medians and landscaping, and more.

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