Making growth pay for itself!

The Real News on Water Treatment Plant #4: From the Comical to the Real Estatesman

When big news stories broke in the good old days, Austin citizens relied on their one daily paper to get the details.  Along came the Austin Chronicle as the new boss, the progressive alternative to challenge the old boss American-Statesman; a rivalry good for coverage of community issues.  But a while back, the new boss Austin Chronicle (despite the good sensibilities of its publisher Nick Barbaro) decided to be damn nearly the same as the old boss Austin American-Statesman, and kowtow to the real estate growth lobby.  Which maybe explains why some people call them the “Comical” and the “Real Estatesman”. 

This issue will be coming back in May 2010 for a vote of the Austin City Council.  So far, they are split 4 in favor (Leffingwell, Martinez, Cole and Shade) and 3 against (Spelman, Riley and Morrison). 

Get the story the Statesman and Chronicle failed to report, watch the debate yourself and YOU decide a major decision on Austin’s critical future on water policy!

The Growth Lobby is working feverishly to double the population of the metro area from 1.3 million to 2.7 million in 16 years.  With the assistance of a compliant media’s growth boosterism and an obedient city government whose resources are devoted to growth, the real estate industry retains its historical firm grip on the city. 

The real news that both papers failed to report is that, as astute local attorney Doug Young put it, “Brian Rodgers destroyed the City’s credibility.” 

Brian Rodgers is a dangerous man.  He is a real estate developer who has been lobbing “truth bombs” at his own profession for years.  Rodgers made his claim to fame by leading last year’s nearly successful end run around the Council to pass a citizen- and local business-backed charter amendment to put an end to the City’s tax breaks to the Domain luxury shopping mall. Rodgers was formerly a professional mechanical engineer and is therefore well qualified to launch water bombs on WTP4, much to the dismay of his opponents in the Chamber of Commerce, the Real Estate Council of Austin, and other unofficial members of the Growth Lobby who are relentlessly pushing the City to build WTP4.

So here’s the real news, folks: a few months ago, the Austin Water Utility was using the slide seen above to convince us that the Davis Water Plant was so corroded and in such serious disrepair that the City needed to build another and third plant.  Council Member Shade’s office arranged for Rodgers and others to tour the Davis plant to see it for themselves.  Rodgers reported to the debate audience, “We discovered that this equipment was not part of the water treatment plant but in a nearby pump station! Conversation with plant officials revealed that the pump station was slated to be rebuilt anyway and that new transmission lines down 35th Street would add more capacity to the Davis Plant.”  

Then, Rodgers asked, “if the City was so worried about our pumping capacity then why did they shut down the Green Water Plant for real estate deal in 2008?”  What was that real estate deal?  You guessed it — more condos!

Next up to the debate bat was Greg Meszaros, the Director of the Austin Water Utility, who then failed to rebut any of Rodgers’ charges, and chose instead to engage in sophistry warning against all the things that could go wrong that could cause a plant failure, without talking about any of the safeguards in place to prevent such problems nor what the actual risks are.  Meszaros urged that we go to the EPA to understand this.   

Bill Bunch, attorney and longtime environmental activist leader of Save Our Springs Alliance, jumped on this with, “If there’s a problem with spills, we need a spill response plan. Do we have one?  And what are we willing to pay for a 2-3 days of a shut down? Will we spend $500 million? This is based on pure anecdote rather than risk assessment which is standard practice.” 

One glaring omission from Meszaros’ side of the debate was about drought conditions, which are predicted to continue for our region for years to come.  This begs the question as to how much water will even be available to justify building a third water treatment plant? Rodgers stated this fact: the average number of treatment plants for a city the size of Austin is 1.7.  This point was not lost on Chronicle publisher Nick Barbaro, who this week editorialized forcefully against the plant, but was lost on Chronicle writer Michael King. King decided instead to attack environmental groups for being united against the plant.

That environmentalists are united against the plant IS news, since they have been divided on many issues over the last ten years.  The Chronicle has contributed to those divisions, but then that’s another story. Predictably, ever the one to attempt to conquer and divide, King raises the cynical notion that there’s something unseemly about environmentalists connecting the costs of WTP4 to the need to improve the City of Austin’s less-than-vigilant efforts at water conservation.  Perhaps King never took Politics 101 and learned the classical definition of politics offered long ago by Harold Lasswell as the practice of “who gets what, when, and how.” King further decided that replacing the Green plant with the similar capacity WTP4 made economic sense – except that the Green land sale may net $50 million while the WTP4 is projected to cost $508 million not including interest. Even trade?  Ha!

We – the writers of this article – did something that credible news organizations do for important events like these.  We did an exit survey.  We surveyed 79 out of the approximately 500 people on their way out of the debate.  Not surprisingly, we learned that not many minds were changed – since most people showed up having been invited from either side. But we did find that 6 out of 7 respondents, and even 50% of 22 respondents who were for building the plant, felt that the Council should base its decision next March on whether to build it on what citizens feel about it and/or to put the issue on the ballot for a public vote. 

One survey respondent was Former Councilwoman Jackie Goodman, who served 9 years on the Council and became known for delving in to the details of these often very complex deals. She wrote, “When an issue is obviously generating intense public interest and opposition, the city needs to answer, explain, and rebut.  They did not ever do that.  What were the ‘infeasibilities’?  If we weren’t told about that at the time, shouldn’t the specifics have been offered as rebuttal?”  Goodman supports putting the issue on the ballot.

Another survey respondent was environmental icon Mary Arnold, who is legendary for doing her homework.  She said, “The most convincing speaker to confirm my opposition to WTP4 was actually Greg Meszaros, the Director of Austin Water Utility, who clearly does not understand the sophistication of Austin environmentalists with regard to the entire history of these issues.  He seems unwilling to include the public in developing a truly comprehensive plan for our water future.  He has bought into the ‘grow or die’ paradigm and is engaging in trying to mislead the public by using the red herring that the ‘state is making us do it’.” 

We asked a respected investigative journalist, who will remain anonymous, to do our survey. The reporter refused but shrewdly observed that, “the only person’s opinion who really counts now is Councilwoman Randi Shade’s.” Shade is seen as the swing vote on this billion dollar fast one.  Her next test comes on October 22.  Stay tuned y’all.

If you want to watch the water debate and make up your own mind, click here.

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