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The passing of Earth Day always causes me to wonder why people do what they do. As an environmentalist, I am fascinated by what motivates people to commit to the incredibly destructive environmental choices I have seen in my lifetime. The most obviously assumed culprit is the greed for money and power, but those who make such choices almost always deny this. A silver lining to the opaque, frustrating work of the environmental activist is the rare chance to catch such people with their hand in the cookie jar, and watch as they try to rationalize their bad choices. A few examples from Austin’s recent environmental history highlight this quite nicely.
The first example is a very bad decision made a few years ago by the Austin City Council to build Water Treatment Plant 4 (WTP4) at Lake Travis, and the accompanying 7-mile long tunnel for the transmission line under the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, which will cost Austin taxpayers in excess of $1 billion.
One of the arguments that the Austin Sierra Club, along with other environmental groups, put forward at the time to oppose building WTP4 was that the project would make water conservation less affordable. This is because science is telling us that we are entering an age of increasing drought caused by man-made global warming. We may have a new water treatment plant, but we will have less water in Lake Travis. Less water to sell means less revenue, which means an increase in the cost per gallon of water for Austin’s citizens. Since conserving water means that less water is sold, and selling more water is what the Austin Water Utility (AWU) was counting on to pay for WTP4, the only option now becomes to either sell more water or raise water rates. With the impending drought, selling more water is just plain foolish, so up go the rates. The more water we conserve, the higher those rates will go.
When this point was originally brought up, none of the supporters of WTP4 were willing to address it. Is the AWU now willing to talk about this? Well, in a way. A recent Austin American-Statesman article has announced that the AWU is now proposing a “drought fee” in addition to increased water rates. So even if an Austin environmentalist who fought against WTP4 lowers his AWU water use down to nothing (say, by recycling water, installing a rainwater collection system, and drastically reducing landscape water use), he may still be forced to continue to pay (through the “drought fee”) for a new water treatment plant to get more water to some big spender’s carpet grass lawn. Some might argue that such a fee is for the “greater good,” but that sounds more like a “stupid tax” to me.
In fairness, the AWU has stated that the cost of WTP4 will be responsible for about 1.5% of the proposed increase in rates (of the rate hike, the “drought fee,” or both, they don’t specify). I’m not sure exactly what that figure means, or how that was estimated, but even this relatively small amount fails to address the larger point: our water source is shrinking. Less than half of the money used to build WTP4 could have been used instead to repair all of our older, leaky water mains, which would have saved the AWU money in repair costs and actually have helped us use the water we have much more efficiently.
The real problem is that we have oversold our water supply. We have been counting on an ever-expanding business model when it comes to water, which is clearly not the case when our changing climate is factored in. Unfortunately, money and power barely won the battle to build WTP4. But, as Neil deGrasse Tyson said recently, “The good thing about science is it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” A water treatment plant is useless when there is no water to treat.
The second example of a bad choice is an old issue that has been around since 1968. This issue, like a king cobra, periodically raises its head and threatens to strike at East Austin. The cobra is now awake and its hood is spread, which means that the old posh golf course proposal for Lake Walter E. Long is again hissing for attention at City Hall.
Suddenly, after a long period of hibernation (since a city-wide vote in 2000, which last put the snake to sleep), the idea of building a high-end, 36-hole golf course on 700 acres on the northeast side of Lake Long has somehow elicited a series of public meetings to determine public opinion. Having been to one of these meetings, I am happy to report that little has changed since 2000: the residents of East Austin still think that this would be a bad idea, mostly because this facility, to be built on public parkland but managed for a profit privately, is not likely to be affordable for the average East Austin resident. I agree with this sentiment wholeheartedly, but I also believe that there are some very good environmental reasons to oppose this golf course, as well.
The opinion of many people is that the parkland around Lake Long is inaccessible. This is not true. If one is willing to take a canoe onto the lake, almost every part of Lake Long is accessible. I have done this for many years (starting in 1988), and this park is one of the best wild places left in all of East Austin.
At Lake Long, I have seen many different species of birds, particularly in the winter. I have regularly seen osprey diving into the lake to catch fish. The lake has a healthy aquatic ecosystem, which still retains a wide variety of fish, insects, reptiles, and amphibians. The park encloses one of the only remaining Indian grass prairie sites in Austin. There is still short grass prairie at Lake Long, and the display of blooming prairie gay feather in late September is the best I have seen anywhere in Texas. On a birding trip in 2013, I even snapped a picture of an immature bald eagle flying over the lake. To me, this is a lot more unusual than a golf course, and it is MUCH cheaper to maintain. If you want a golf course, all you have to do is cross Decker Lane, and just opposite the lake is Bluebonnet Hill Golf Course.
There are no bald eagles at the Bluebonnet Hill Golf Course.
There is another interesting thing to know about Lake Long: because it was designed to be a cooling lake for the Decker power plant, the water level in the lake must remain constant. There has never been enough water running down the creeks that flow into Lake Long to keep it full throughout the year. Water must be pumped into Lake Long from the Colorado River. In the middle of a hot summer, I am told that these large pumps run around the clock. As long as there is a power plant generating power, it possible to use some of that power to cool the plant. What started out as a coal-fired facility is now a gas-fired facility, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this aging generator is decommissioned completely in the near future. When this finally happens, does anyone really think that it will make sense to continue to pump all of that water to maintain a lake for a privately managed golf course? The golf course will need to generate a lot of additional revenue to pay for those pumps.
A high-end, 700-acre, 36 hole golf course for Lake Long is an idea that has never yet met with citizen approval. So why is the city spending such time and effort to find out (again) what the public opinion is concerning this golf course? Part of the answer was revealed at the meeting I attended recently. An unnamed developer threw a bunch of figurative money on the table in front of some part of the city government, and said you will get some of this if you let me develop a golf course at Lake Long. And so the cobra is awakened. I’m sure that someone has rationalized this as “due diligence.” To me, it just looks like another bad idea. I will be attending future meetings to stare at the cobra, and see whose hand is in the snake’s cookie jar.
The third example of a poorly rationalized idea is the continuing debacle of State Highway 45 Southwest (SH 45 SW). This idea is so bad that it boggles the mind. I mean, what could possibly go wrong with a 3.5 mile, $100 million toll road across one of the most sensitive parts of the Barton Springs recharge zone that would greatly increase traffic on MoPac? Watching this project lurch forward has given me lots of time to observe how its proponents attempt to justify environmental destruction.
Nowadays, everyone claims to be “an environmentalist.” But, too me, being an environmentalist doesn’t mean: “I will try not to harm the environment too much.” It means: “I will spend the time and effort it takes to understand how the natural world works so that I can then take steps to make certain that I do not harm the environment more than it can repair itself.” From SH 45 SW proponents, I have heard things like: “You can’t tell me that, with all of our technology, we can’t build a three and a half mile road so that it won’t pollute Barton Springs!” It’s like a teenager with a credit card – they want the clothes, but they don’t understand compound interest. The developers want the road, but they don’t understand the science of hydrology and geology, or the math that limits the capacity of a system to sustain itself. Unfortunately, when money is thrown into the mix, the ignorance becomes willful.
Ironically, the supporters of SH 45 SW appear afraid that if the project undergoes a federal environmental impact study (EIS), the result would tell them that building SH 45 SW within budget will indeed decrease water quality in Barton Springs, and at the very least, slow down the project. Without the federal EIS, CAMPO cannot use the federal funds that are currently available for this project, so they have to find the money elsewhere. This means shifting money between projects as well as projecting toll revenue. As we already know from the SH 130, this is hard to do with any certainty. So CAMPO is now scrambling to try to make the numbers work so that SH 45 SW will, at least on paper, look affordable.
Years from now, on the shores of a dried up Barton Springs, there might be someone who remembers still alive and angry enough to want to ask those responsible for all of the bad decisions: “What was your excuse?” The tragic futility of such an imagined moment reinforces the fact that we only have the present in which to act. I try to keep this in mind every time I have an opportunity to protect the environment.
As Yoda said, “Do or do not; there is no try!”
-submitted by Craig Nazor