Water in the News: Water Treatment Plant #4 Commissioned

Taps flowing, but is there demand for Austin’s WaterTreatment Plant 4?

By Andra Lim – American-Statesman, Posted: 8:35 p.m. Friday, Dec. 19, 2014

At the grand opening Friday for a water treatment plant in West Austin, a trio of city officials raised their glasses and said “cheers” to a project that has often been the target of jeers.

Even as city officials toasted the facility Friday, they also admitted that the water demand projections that helped persuade a slim City Council majority to approve building the plant in 2009 didn’t come true.

The last thing Austin needed to do was build a half-billion-dollar water treatment plant at this time,” environmental activist Paul Robbins said. “We are up to our gills in overcapacity. No pun intended.”

Water in the News: Austin needs to take measure to control water rates

Robbins: Austin needs to take measure to control water rates

BY PAUL ROBBINS – SPECIAL TO THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN, Posted: 12:00 a.m. Saturday, April 12, 2014

Austin’s cost of living is soaring, and one reason is its water costs. Water rates are falling into a dangerous pattern. It’s called a “death spiral.” Costs go up, inducing market pressure to drive consumption down, eliminating revenue needed to pay fixed costs. So rates go up again, causing consumers to cut back further, and the spiral gets steeper.

At the same time, the Central Texas region is afflicted with record drought, so consumption is heavily discouraged. Water rates will go higher to make up for even more lost revenue.

Austin’s water utility boasts that its conservation efforts have lowered consumption 17 percent per person between 2006 and 2013. This seems impressive until you consider water rates went up 70 percent in the same time period. In fact, between 2000 and 2014, water rates went up 123 percent and wastewater rates went up 130 percent. Inflation only rose 36 percent.

And brace yourselves. It has been announced that by 2019, water rates will need to be increased another 31 percent and wastewater rates another 15 percent. This is despite cutbacks planned for next year’s budget and recent hook-up fee increases for new buildings of almost 200 percent.

The planned increases may not stop here. Due to the drought, the utility is shopping for new water supplies. To give you an idea of the relative cost, groundwater sold by one potential supplier to an Austin suburb is 30 times the price Austinites pay for Colorado River water.

Why are costs so high?

  • The biggest reason is capital investment and debt, much of it coming from growth. About 52 percent of your water/wastewater bill is related to capital improvements. An example of this is the half-billion-dollar Water Treatment Plant No. 4, which began construction in 2010. Judging from the utility’s recent forecast, Austin will not need its capacity for 17 years. Because it is a wasted asset, it will literally cost more to turn on the plant than to leave off.
  • There were poor decisions regarding asset management. The “profit” from the land sale of the former Green Water Treatment Plant site was put back into enhancements for the site’s redevelopment instead of lowering water costs. Other property, such as the retired Govalle plant on Lady Bird Lake, sits almost unused.
  • The water utility is one of the largest energy users in Austin, consuming enough electricity to power 17,000 homes. Yet it has no energy conservation plan and is buying wind power at 39 percent more than it cost the electric utility to purchase.
  • The utility’s profit, the transfer to the General Fund, has more than doubled since 2000, while water consumption is roughly the same.

Until the debt works its way out of water rates over time, Austin may not be able to do much to lower them. But through fiscal discipline and real conservation efforts, it can mitigate future increases.

There are a host of small cost-saving measures that can add up. These include: reducing General Fund transfers; postponing the operation of the new treatment plant until it is needed; buying and conserving electricity at an affordable cost; selling unneeded assets and using the profits to buy down debt; using leak-resistant polyethylene pipe; using “smart” utility meters to reduce labor costs and water loss.

There are several strategies that need to be implemented instead of purchasing new supplies. One of the most basic is to fully implement the water conservation plan approved by the City Council in 2007. This would be greatly enhanced if the conservation program was moved out of the debt-strapped utility, which has a conflict of interest saving water.

In addition, Austin has a reclaimed water system that is barely used, as well as access to Barton Springs flows into the Colorado River that might be routed to a treatment plant.

Austin would be foolish to ignore the affordability of its water any longer. Wall Street has a word for cities that have reached the height of fiscal hubris: Detroit.

Robbins is an environmental activist, consumer advocate, and author of “Hard to Swallow,” a report on Austin’s high water costs.

Water in the News: Robbins: Dry lakes demand conservation

Robbins: Dry lakes demand conservation

Austin Statesman, September 17, 2013

 The question on a lot of people’s minds right now is, “How low can they go?”

Lakes Travis and Buchanan, which supply much of our region’s water, are not natural lakes. They are reservoirs completed in the 1930s and ’40s. At full capacity, they hold 2 million acre-feet. (An acre-foot is enoughwater for annual needs of about three average Austin homes.)

Today, barring a major rainstorm, they are about to fall to their lowest levels since they were created. In September 1952, the lakes reached 621,000 acre-feet. On Sept. 10, they were at 659,000 acre-feet and dropping by about 1,400 acre-feet per day. Those worried about the water supply are in the perverse position of “praying for hurricanes.”

People living near the lakes, as well as cities facing water shortfalls, have become resentful of the rice farmers in the Colorado River’s lower basin area. It must be remembered that these farms have been cut off from their water supply for the past two years, the first time this has happened in the history of the lakes. It should also be remembered that federal funding for the lakes partially relied on the congressional support of the agrarian region downstream.

And while there is considerably more wealth per gallon generated by cities and industries compared to farms, this wealth will not be especially meaningful without food. In 2011, farmers paid about $28 per acre-foot for raw water to grow enough rice to feed about 1.2 million people annually on a calorie basis. Meanwhile, Austinites were willing to pay $1,600 per acre-foot for treated water to grow their “crop” of grass.

Believe it or not, it can get worse. If you total current use from Austin and other cities, future water contracts to provide for Austin’s growth, industrial use, evaporation from the lakes, and agricultural use, and apply it to current lake levels and drought conditions, the Highland Lakes would be below zero.

It is time to start planning in earnest for the future. There are no longer enough resources to provide for insatiable thirst of all who come here. We will either face huge increases in cost or need to create a water-efficient economy. Conservation of both water and money are key.

Five of the most promising strategies need center attention.

• Full implementation of 2007 conservation plan: In 2007, Austin created an aggressive conservation plan with 19 strategies to save water. Today, many of these ideas are still not implemented or have their effectiveness compromised. Some, such as mandatory plumbing fixtures retrofits, have stalled because they are controversial. Others, such as mandatory irrigation audits, have no method to measure effectiveness.

•Reclaimed water: The use of highly-treated wastewater for non-potable purposes such as irrigation and cooling towers has been employed to great effect in other cities. Austin has invested more than $50 million in its own “purple pipe” system. This has the potential to defray as much as 50 million gallons per day of peak capacity, the same as will be provided by the controversial Water Treatment Plant No. 4. However, Austin’s overly strict hook-up policies, lack of marketing staff, and lack of customer-side financing are constricting the use of this new system.

•Polyethylene utility pipe: Austin is using polyvinyl chloride water pipe as its material of choice. This is extremely toxic to manufacture and is more prone to leaks than polyethylene pipe, which is almost leak-proof and sometimes cheaper to install. Austin needs to replace more than 700 miles of old cast iron pipe that is at the end of its life, and it should be using the best materials.

•No new water projects: When Water Treatment Plant No. 4 comes online, this half-billion-dollar facility will raise Austin’s peak capacity to 335 million gallons per day. This past August, the city barely used half of this amount. This unneeded expenditure, and others like it, directly compete with water conservation funding.

•Relocate water conservation programs: Austin’s water conservation programs are administered by a utility whose main mission is to sell water. This is a blatant conflict of interest. The water conservation programs should be moved to a separate agency unshackled to the water utility.

Conservation is the best option we have right now, and the least expensive. It is past time to make the hard decisions necessary to make it work to its full potential.

Praying for hurricanes is not a drought-management policy.

Robbins is the editor of the Austin Environmental Directory. The new edition is online at environmentaldirectory.info.

Water in the News: The Irony of Conservation

Then There’s This: The Irony of Conservation

Austin’s water-saving habits will delay need for WTP4

By Amy Smith, Austin Chronicle, Fri., Dec. 21, 2012

This is how Lake Travis looked on Nov. 9. It looks the same today.

This is how Lake Travis looked on Nov. 9. It looks the same today.
Photo courtesy of The LCRA

“I just need to point out environmentalists were right and you were wrong,” said Spelman, referring to the emotionally charged series of debates leading up to the 2009 Council vote on the plant. “Because,” he continued after pausing a beat, “you have done such a wonderful job with conservation … and if you want to say you’re happy you’re wrong … this would be a lovely time to say so.”

The back-and-forth over WTP4 sidetracked what was supposed to be one of the high points of the Council briefing: Mes­zaros was joined at the podium by Resource Manage­ment Commission Chair Leo Diel­mann, who was on hand to endorse the conservation program’s progress and report on improved relations between utility staff and the Council-appointed RMC. A year ago, the two sides had all but stopped speaking to one another due to their disagreements over how well, or how poorly, the program was working. RMC members complained to Council about what they believed was a lackluster conservation effort and the utility’s apparent reluctance to share information. In response, Council members prodded the utility to start working more collaboratively with the commission. “We came to y’all 18 months ago very critical of the water conservation program and of the water utility,” Diel­mann told the Council. “What we didn’t realize 18 months ago is that the water utility has made very good progress toward these goals.”

But all of this cheerfulness was enough to make water watchdog Paul Robbins gag. He said he felt like a “caged rottweiler” during the briefing, which he said was set up on the agenda in a way that did not allow for public comments. The utility, he says, is still underachieving in many areas – water-saving landscape incentives, irrigation audits, and rebates for rainwater harvesting equipment and water-efficient toilets. He said he outlined these and other shortcomings in an update to his 2011 report, “Read It and Leak,” which he provided to the RMC in November.

Water in the News: Top Water Users 2011

A handful of prominent Austinites are again among the city’s thirstiest residential water users, including some who previously blamed broken pipes and other aberrations for using far more water than the typical Austin Water Utility customer.

With Central Texas more than a year into one of the worst droughts in recorded history, the households of health care magnate Robert Girling, auto dealer Doug Maund, lobbyist Neal “Buddy” Jones, U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul and champion cyclist Lance Armstrong used between 13 and 20 times what the average Austin home used over the past year, according to Austin Water Utility records.

The list, obtained through an open records request by environmental activist Paul Robbins and verified by the American-Statesman with the water utility, shows water consumption from Oct. 1, 2010, to Sept. 30, 2011. That time frame roughly corresponds to the current drought, which has left Lake Travis, Austin’s primary source of water, about 37 percent full and dropping.

 

Water in the News: Throwing Toilets Out of Airplanes

Toilet program, once flush with cash, asking for more funding

Rebates for high-efficiency toilets have resulted in 1.3 million gallons of water saved per day.

Marty Toohey, Austin StatesmanAug 31, 2012

For years, the City of Austin has offered to pay most or all of the cost of buying and installing new, high-efficiency toilets to help the city conserve a limited resource.

They have asked for an additional $3 million for the program…

Paul Robbins, a longtime environmental activist and frequent critic of the water utility, contends…

“It’s cheaper to do a shared savings program,” Robbins said. “Instead, they’re throwing toilets out of airplanes. They seem to have forgotten that money is a nonrenewable resource.”

Water in the News: No Drought Here

Then There’s This: No Drought Here

So what if the lakes are half full – it rained, didn’t it?

By Amy Smith, Fri., Austin Chronicle, July 27, 2012 

A little over two months ago, during a City Council work session on Austin Water Utility’s budget outlook, Mayor Lee Leffingwell raised the issue of relaxing the city’s Stage 2 drought restrictions that limit outdoor watering to once a week…

It’s possible the city wouldn’t be in a position to free up more water for St. Augustine grass had the LCRA not cut off water to rice farmers in downstream counties due to drought conditions in cities. Rice farmers are enormous water hogs, but they reportedly contribute nearly $400 million to the Texas economy and provide 5% of the nation’s rice. City officials and others often speak ill of rice farmers for using so much water without much thought to conservation.

Environmental activist Paul Robbins takes a different view. “I personally look at this situation and think, ‘Do they want us to eat grass?’ The rice farmers’ loss from this year’s crop would literally feed a million people on a calorie basis,” he said. “It seems OK to AWU that we waste water on grass, but not on rice.”

Water in the News: Who are Austin’s top water users?

Who are Austin’s top water users?

Some were on the list last time it was published

David Scott, KXAN, Updated: Thursday, 20 Oct 2011, 9:50 PM CDT

No. 3 in 2010, Robert W. Girling takes the top spot this year, consuming nearly two million gallons of water. The Girling maid said the family had no comment about it, when asked.

Another repeat customer on the list is Congressman Michael McCaul. He comes in sixth, using 1.4 million gallons. His office said they are looking into underground irregularities because a number of top users live in close proximity. When McCaul came in the top 10 users last year, his office blamed an underground leak.

Cycling champ Lance Armstrong comes in eighth on the list, four spots higher than former University of Texas Longhorns running back Cedric Benson, who used nearly 1.3 million gallons.

=====

NOTE: This story was based on a public information release made by Paul Robbins.

Water in the News: McCauls’ repeat presence on top water list

McCauls’ repeat presence on top water list prompts questions

By Mike Kanin, InFact DailyOctober 21, 2011
Reprinted with permission

For the third year in a row, US Congressman Michael McCaul (R-TX) and his wife Linda have returned to a list of the Austin Water Utility’s top water users. McCaul, who told the Statesman‘s Asher Price in 2009 (when he ranked seventh) that his household’s presence on that year’s list was thanks to a water leak, and then had a spokesperson repeat the same statement to KXAN in 2010 (when he ranked ninth).

Utility spokesperson Jason Hill told In Fact Daily Thursday that the McCauls reported that a contractor had struck one of their water lines in March 2011. The couple was ranked sixth on the FY2011 big user list.

A spokesperson for the Congressman suggested that an infrastructure problem may yet be to blame. Mike Rosen told In Fact Daily that several of the houses that appear high on the list are in the same neighborhood. “It seems highly irregular…the McCauls think it may be more than just a coincidence,” he said.

Though some of the addresses on the list are blacked out, at least two of the homes—that of the McCauls and one belonging to auto dealer Steve Late and his wife Ava – are on the same street.

In all, four of the top 10 residential water users from FY2010 are featured on a list of the top 50 of the Austin Water Utility’s residential customers in FY2011. Other recognizable names include former Longhorn and NFL running back Cedric Benson, onetime health industry executive Robert Girling, and auto dealer Doug Maund. Benson, Girling, and Maund were also each on the 2009 list.

In Fact Daily obtained the 2011 list from long-time Austin environmental watchdog Paul Robbins. Robbins got the list via an Open Records request.

Robbins has been a driving force behind many of the city’s environmental initiatives for more than 30 years. The Austin Chronicle Readers Poll named him Austin’s best environmentalist for 2011.  

The average Austin Water residential customer uses roughly 100,000 gallons a year. Robbins noted that the households on the 2011 list used 10 to 20 times that amount. “There has been a proposal for mandatory water audits for large customers for almost five years. The Water Conservation Division has not pursued it,” he said via email. “My own opinion is that in drought, there should be some mandatory cap on consumption.”

Hill was unable to verify whether the utility was considering such an effort.

Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza was asked whether the utility has an audit program in the works for large water users.

“There is not,” he said. “The only thing that we are working right now is continuing to explore the options for a commercial audit. I am not aware of a program where we would audit large residential water users. Outside of the current one day a week watering and the other restrictions that we have, (conservation is) strictly voluntary…but we would be willing to offer them any assistance that we can.”

Maund and representatives for Armstrong and Benson did not respond to requests for comment.

The FY2011 list features 50 names. Girling, who paid for 1.9 million gallons of water tops it. Following him on the list are Maund, then Neil (Buddy) Jones, Paul Zito, Ava Late, the McCauls, Christopher Carrier, Armstrong, Molly O’Connor-Kemp, and Shannon Ratliff.

Hill told In Fact Daily that four of the top 50 households on the list had received adjustments to their 2011 bills because of leak reports. However, none of the top 10 from 2011, including the McCauls, got similar adjustments.

The majority of the top 50 water users for FY2011 reside in either West Austin or the West Lake Hills region. The McCauls reportedly used 1.4 million gallons, and Benson was billed for 1.275 million gallons.

Information for Armstrong and Maund’s usage was blacked out by Austin Water officials. The utility offers residents a choice about whether to share usage data and their address.

“2011 was the hottest, driest summer in Austin’s recorded history,” added Robbins. “These top water users are usually the wealthiest people and can afford conservation equipment. They should be setting an example for the city.”

Austin Water’s FY2011 top user list features a variety of other information, including glances at the top large volume, commercial, and multi-family residential users. As might be expected, Samsung’s Austin operation led the entire pack with over 1.2 billion gallons of water use. That figure represents the largest single point of waterconsumption from the city’s water system by a long shot.

My comments on Infact story: Rudy Garza’s statements in this story are incorrect.  On May 3, 2007, the City Council authorized two programs for mandatory audits of irrigation systems for large residential and commercial customers.  There is a document confirming this on the City Council Web site, and there is ample documentation that these programs have been delayed between the 2007 authorization and the date this story was published.

Water in the News: Drought? What Drought?

Point Austin: Drought? What Drought?

Just because we have a huge water supply doesn’t mean we have to use it

By Amy Smith, Austin Chronicle, Fri., Sept. 2, 2011

Last Thursday, Aug. 25, two members of the city’s Resource Management Com­mis­sion, Chair Leo Dielmann and former Chair Christine Herbert, appeared before City Council to deliver a briefing on the current status of the city’s water conservation endeavors. They brought with them environmental activist Paul Robbins to provide the “public” component of the presentation…

Once Robbins had finished his portion of the briefing, Council Member Bill Spelman inadvertently opened the door for the elephant in the room – Water Treatment Plant No. 4 – the very topic that Leffingwell had tried to steer clear of as part of the discussion. Referring to Austin’s ample water supply, Spelman asked, “Why would it make sense not to use every bit of it?”

“Well,” Robbins replied, “one [reason] is you have to build new water treatment plants, and given how much fun we’re having with the current water treatment plant, I can’t help but believe that you don’t want to build any more of them.”