Rules to change consumers’ permitted activities at each stage of emergency drought restrictions
With summer approaching, the City of Austin is looking to rework its water conservation codes to ensure it will be on par with future demands of residents and businesses while being better prepared to contend with imminent droughts. The city is taking steps to make certain it uses its water resources wisely looking out into the next year or two.
“Last summer, particularly around August or September, it looked very bad,” said Drema Gross, water conservation manager for the City of Austin. “We’ve certainly learned a lot about how this process works so that we’ll be better prepared the next time we find ourselves in a drought situation this severe.”
While officials predict that the advancing summer will be milder in comparison with 2011, public feedback indicates there’s anxiety at the prospect of facing another hot season under the city’s current water conservation codes.
So far, a large part of the response from citizens has included a desire to see the city be more proactive and less reactive in addressing water conservation problems.
“Despite the fact that we have year-round restrictions, I think people want earlier notice where we start to build awareness before the lake levels get quite as low as they did under our current drought contingency plan,” she said. “In 2009, when we went into restrictions, we went into them for a relatively short period of time and three weeks in people started seeing rain. So, it didn’t have the sustained impact this past drought did.”
The city has gone through two droughts with the 2007 water restrictions.
Since then, Gross said the city learned what measures are difficult to enforce, what creates a burden on customers and what may actually be hindering conservation.
In the past, violation fines were trickled down through the court system into the city’s general fund. The new revisions would have those fines show up on a citizen’s water bill and be put back into the utility.
Gross said the city also found that if it had to sustain current Stage 3 restrictions—the most rigid level of regulation for now—for any extended period of time or stay in current Stage 2 restrictions for almost a year, the consequences could be dire. As a result, the codes would see changes to Stage 1, 2 and 3 water restrictions, and the possible addition of new Stage Four restrictions. These changes may be presented to city council in June, according to the Utility.
Put simply, the City of Austin has pre-paid the Lower Colorado River Authority for its water. If the city crosses a water-use threshold for two consecutive years, it will have to make payments in the multimillion-dollar range to LCRA. The hope is that the revisions of local codes will allow the city to stretch its dollars further through conservation and defer those payments.
“We’re in very good position as far as water supply,” Gross said. “Of course we’re concerned about drought, but it makes financial sense for the city and the Utility to try and extend our pre-paid amount of water as long as possible.”
In February, the LCRA board of directors approved a revision for its own Water Management Plan for lakes Buchanan and Travis, which saw record low inflows in 2011. As of April 20, the combined storage of lakes Buchanan and Travis was 978,893 acre-feet of water—691,107 acre-feet of water less than the usual 1.67 million.
The approval of the plan, which signals the end of an 18-month strategy to pare down water usage and should allow LCRA more flexibility to respond to severe droughts, has been passed on to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for final approval.
The plan revisions ask water customers, such as the City of Austin, to reduce water use consistent with their drought plans only after interruptible water (water available for contract sale for a specific period) from the Highland Lakes for agriculture is restricted. The current plan calls for voluntary restrictions by municipalities after agricultural water use is restricted.
In the currently approved water management plan, there is essentially one trigger point: In November, the LCRA predicts where the lake levels will be in January. If lake levels are above a certain point, then there is open supply for agricultural, interruptible customers, which means customers can take as much water as they want.
In a year like 2011, in which there is record low rainfall, record high heat and evaporation off the lakes, this is a recipe for lake levels dropping extremely rapidly when farms draw water for a second crop. The revised plan adds a second trigger point in June that determines if the lakes can be tapped for more water.
“It’s kind of a way of putting the brakes on in the middle of the year that hadn’t been there previously,” Gross said.
There is concern TCEQ may not approve the plan in time to make it effective.
“Last time, it took the TCEQ years to finalize it,” Travis County Commissioner Karen Huber said. “It can still be changed, and competing interests will be trying to get amendments to it while it goes through the TCEQ process.”
Implementing state plans
In December, the Texas Water Development Board released its latest version of its state water plan detailing a scenario in which water population and demand in Texas increases by 80 percent and 22 percent by 2060, respectively, while existing water supply decreases by 10 percent.
The plan states that the capital cost to design, construct and implement the recommended water management strategies and projects will fall around $53 billion, with municipal water providers expected to need nearly $27 billion in state financial assistance to implement its strategies.
“The state’s water plan is a $53 billion unfunded list of projects and ideas at this point,” said Laura Huffman, Texas director of The Nature Conservancy, during a January water use and management panel hosted by Leadership Austin. “The thing that [we] are most concerned with is that the plan says 25 percent of our future water supply is going to come from conservation. It’d be good to have a game plan, right?”
Addressing root causes
That is why the city is attempting to change other aspects of its practices to help the cause.
As part of the conservation effort, Austin Water Utility kicked off Renewing Austin in early April to show its dedication to the cause of water management by fixing aging lines in the city’s water distribution system.
“With this systematic approach to replacing old water lines, we are making the commitment to be proactive instead of reactive when it comes to the maintenance and reliability of Austin’s water distribution system,” Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros said in a news release.
Renewing Austin is a five-year program that will invest $125 million in target areas in the city that were chosen after reviewing historical data, visual inspections and testing water lines with special acoustic equipment that “listens” for leaks.
“One of the things that we’ve done in the last couple of years is dramatically reduce the time that it takes us to go out and fix leaks,” Gross said. “It used to take us three days from the time they were reported. Now, we fix them on the same day.”
Gross said there are proposals to further the cause of conservation and promote efficient irrigation technologies, and giving better deals to customers who install xeriscaping—a method of gardening that groups plants that need less water away from plants that need more.
She added that the city is trying to work with homebuilder associations to push for low-water use landscapes as selling points for new home buyers.
“We don’t, at this point in time, foresee more stringent restrictions, but we’re proceeding cautiously,” Gross said. “While we’ll see some immediate relief in the next several months, I would say that it’s very likely Austin will continue to experience periods of extreme drought. The water plan revisions through the LCRA will help us manage the supply in those times, and we’re hoping that our code revisions will help us keep Austin’s value through a more significant long-term drought.”
Andrea Leptinsky contributed to this article