Did We Miss Our Teachable Moment on Water?

Well blog readers, the blog is  back after a long hiatus and there is A LOT to talk about.  This summer may not have been as dry as last summer, but that doesn't mean there aren't lots of water issues to discuss.  We are not out of a drought and there still isn't enough to go around.  First, a tad about me.  I have changed positions and shifted into academia full time, while still doing some work for EDF so for now this blog will still be up and running in its current location. Unless you hear differently, please keep tuning in.

As the title indicates, I have been a bit disappointed in what I have been seeing in cities lately regarding water planning. One would think that after such a severe drought we would reevaluate our practices to be able to withstand another drought or just live more sustainably. Sadly that isn't the case. Here are some examples.

Austin

If you live in Austin you might have been confused this summer about when you can water and when you can't.  This might be in part because the city changed briefly back to 2x/week watering (even though the lakes were still far from full) in July and then they quickly got changed back to 1x/week in September.  The reason given for relaxing the standards was the trees, but hose watering was never restricted so that doesn't make sense.  The mayor said he didn't see a problem going back and forth, but some citizens might disagree particularly when it is within a 2-month time frame.  To successfully create a conservation culture you need a consistent message.  Perhaps a permanent ordinance change can be crafted that protects trees and provides consistency for residents.

Some Austin residents have all the consistency they need by having no watering rules apply to the wells they have drilled.  They argue that their use of groundwater alleviates the lakes for other uses, but that argument has very little do to with the issue.  First, that water they are happily removing is needed somewhere else, whether it be by springs and the environment or communities that don't have access to surface water.

Second, people shouldn't have the right to do things their neighbors aren't allowed just because they  can afford it especially when it is wasteful and not beneficial to the greater good of the community.  If anything, this could lead to local disputes and discord.  It is also looking for a solution in the wrong direction.  Central Texas is dry.  That is the reality. Instead of spending all that money on a well, the whole lawn could be revamped to require less water.  The City of Austin recently passed a resolution to require an owner register a well, but didn't prohibit the wells as other cities have done.

San Antonio

Last night in San Antonio, I attended one of San Antonio Water System's (SAWS) two public meetings on a proposed new Water Management Plan and Conversation ordinance.  What? You didn't know about these?  Perhaps that it because the events weren't listed on the SAWS website or in their newsletter.  In fact, I had to call SAWS to get time, date, and location the afternoon of the meeting, at which point it was added to the website.  Why does this matter?  Well, it matters because this will define the water future for San Antonio and people need to be aware of it.  It will also greatly impact water rates, although we don't know how much yet because that wasn't part of the presentation even though the board vote is scheduled for October 2, a mere two weeks away.  It is unclear when citizens will have the opportunity to learn about and comment on their future water rate increase.

Although I have many questions and concerns about the plan, right now I am more concerned about the process.  SAWS has a nationwide reputation for their leadership in conservation and water innovation. Part of the reason they have been so successful is their willingness to partner with community stakeholders.  However, in this biggest roll out since 2009, hardly anyone knows it is happening.  I hope this doesn't indicate a shift in SAWS culture.  The best thing SAWS can do in this situation is delay the vote on this plan and allow people time to review the draft document once it is complete and submit comments.

I have heard from various water managers that customers are experiencing drought or conservation fatigue. I am not sure how to respond to that.  We can't make it rain, we can't change our climate, we can only live within its bounds. Didn't the drought teach us that if nothing else? Perhaps the fatigue is coming from fighting reality whereas accepting it would not only make folks feel better, it would enable us to live here longer.

This entry was posted in Austin, Central Texas, Drought, Edwards Aquifer, Groundwater, san antonio, Water Conservation, Water Planning and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

2 Comments

  1. Robert H Haverlock
    Posted September 20, 2012 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

    Amy,

    Curious as to what or whom the community stake holders are? We here in washington State don't pretend to have the issues you all face in Texas. However, the future of water looks grim evan here by 2050. They expect no real snow pack in the Cascades and Canada by that date, which makes us so green.

    We have held many water forums by our own "Cascadia Green Build" regarding district waste water, purple pipes, and alternative water resources for the coming years. Some of us here, think cisterns should be apart of buildings and codes, as well as rebates and grey water. California leads the way, and we here in Seattle's King County also allow grey water use, but not as good as California's.

    Check out Florida, which has been using recycled waste water for all public spaces for some 28 years. And in closing, I think the biggest threat is not communicating that with public, and we need to charge more for water, it's still too cheap!

    Regards,

    Robert Haverlock
    CSBA, Water and Energy

    • Amy Hardberger
      Posted September 21, 2012 at 6:19 am | Permalink

      Robert – Thanks for your comment. The stakeholders can vary according to region. For example, agriculture in one area may be an issue whereas industrial may be more common in another, but generally it would be good to see representation from municipal, ag, downstream users (if applicable), environmental interests (which may vary due to the area), power and industrial and private land owners (if not covered by ag). Of course, this is a very rough list and folks could be added if necessary.

      Sadly, I think the water challenges are soon to be universal and I certainly hope that you all do a better job of prospective planning that many western states have done. Many of your suggestions, such as onsite grey water recycling are becoming more and more common. There just needs to be considerations regarding who was using that treated wastewater before and determine the impacts on them.

      Best of luck, please keep reading and commenting.

      Amy

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