SOS, 2 oth­ers file suit to halt wa­ter plant

Austin American-Statesman - - METRO & STATE - By Marty toohey

The Save Our Springs Al­liance has sued to stop work on a $500 mil­lion wa­ter treat­ment plant that would draw from Lake Travis, hop­ing partly to buy time to change Austin’s po­lit­i­cal pic­ture.

Save Our Springs claims that the city govern­ment is vi­o­lat­ing fed­eral en­vi­ron­men­tal law by build­ing the treat­ment plant be­fore do­ing the re­quired en­vi­ron­men­tal stud­ies. Ac­tivist group En­vi­ron­ment Texas and Uni­ver­sity of Texas pro­fes­sor Mark Kirk­patrick also joined the law­suit, which was filed late Thurs­day.

“They’re build­ing the plant while they’re do­ing the stud­ies,” said Bill Bunch, Save Our Springs’ ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor. “The reg­u­la­tions are quite clear on this: You can’t take ac­tions that prej­u­dice the out­come (of en­vi­ron­men­tal stud­ies), and de­cid­ing to the build the plant first prej­u­dices the out­come.”

City of­fi­cials say the wa­ter treat­ment plant must be built now and is nec­es­sary to en­sure that Austin avoids short­ages as its pop­u­la­tion grows. The fight over the plant dates back a quar­ter cen­tury, but in Oc­to­ber, a split City Coun­cil gave the key ap­proval to pro­ceed.

Kevin Buch­man, a spokes- man with the Austin Wa­ter Util­ity, said Thurs­day that the city had not been no­ti­fied of the law­suit and had no com­ment on it.

Since the Oc­to­ber vote, the city has spent tens of mil­lions of dol­lars on en­gi­neer­ing and prepa­ra­tion of the site, which is off Bul­lick Hol­low Road near the Oa­sis res­tau­rant.

Ev­ery few weeks a new spend­ing pro­posal has gone to the coun­cil for ap­proval, usu­ally en­coun­ter­ing some sort of protest that ul­ti­mately has failed.

Crit­ics say the city won’t need the plant for decades and could stop work now, re­sum­ing it at some point in the fu­ture if needed.

Bunch said SOS wants a fed­eral judge to or­der the city to stop un­til it fin­ishes its en­vi­ron­men­tal stud­ies. The judge’s rul­ing alone would not stop the plant. Bunch said the law­suit speaks to com­plet­ing the en­vi­ron­men­tal stud­ies, not the ques­tion of what the city does af­ter.

But, Bunch said, those stud- ies typ­i­cally take as long as two years, “and we have two City Coun­cil races” over that time, in which the en­tire coun­cil is up for elec­tion.

Four coun­cil mem­bers now sup­port the project, and three op­pose it.

Mean­while, Save Our Springs re­mains fi­nan­cially on the ropes. It con­tin­ues to seek bank­ruptcy pro­tec­tion and owes hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars to its cred­i­tors, chief among them de­vel­oper Bill Gun­nto whom it lost a long le­gal bat­tle.

Bunch said that money won’t be an is­sue with the treat­ment plant law­suit be­cause Save Our Springs has se­cured grants, mainly from the Kirk Mitchell En­vi­ron­men­tal Law Fund.

Skip Cameron, pres­i­dent of the Bull Creek Foun­da­tion and a Save Our Springs critic, ac­cused the or­ga­ni­za­tion of fil­ing a friv­o­lous law­suit that will cost tax­payer dol­lars to de­fend.

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