Category Archives: Austin

New TCEQ Rules Threaten Bay Health

This blog was written by Joanna Wolaver, a media consultant with National Wildlife Federation in Austin, TX

Chances are you saw the national headlines. Texas’s extreme drought has reduced the flow of freshwater from rivers into Galveston Bay, causing hyper-saline, inhospitable waters for wildlife and significant harm to the bay’s oyster industry. However, this is only part of the story.

These extremely salty conditions could become the norm rather than the exception due to rules recently adopted by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) Commissioners. Under these rules, upstream water users will be allowed to pump significant amounts of water from the Trinity and San Jacinto rivers. As a result, summer freshwater inflows from these rivers into Galveston Bay will be reduced levels low or even lower than the bay is experiencing now more than half the time.

These rules are the result of a three-year long process that was intended to ensure sufficient water for fish and wildlife – and related industries – during times of drought while also meeting human water supply needs. (The adopted rules only impact new water rights, not existing water rights.) However, instead of putting adequate protections in place for the bay, the process resulted in protections lower than those already in place.

So, what can we do now to ensure a healthy future for the bay?

First, TCEQ must revisit the rules for the Trinity and San Jacinto Rivers and Galveston Bay and make them stronger. Water rights holders should also be encouraged to participate in voluntary efforts such as donation or sale of existing water rights to environmental purposes and dedication of wastewater return flows. The City of Houston’s recent dedication of approximately half of its wastewater return flows to this purpose as a critical first step in this effort.

In addition, the Commissioners are currently considering regulations to protect fish and wildlife in Central Texas rivers and Matagorda, Lavaca, Mission, Copano, Aransas and San Antonio bays. Please join the Texas Living Waters Project partners – National Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter and the Galveston Bay Foundation – in urging them not to make the same poor decision they did for the Trinity and San Jacinto rivers and Galveston Bay by enacting insufficient flow rules in other Texas river and bay systems.

This is not the future we want for our beloved and economically important coastal areas.  Please contact the TCEQ Commissioners at commiser@tceq.state.texas.gov or 512-239.5500 and ask them to fix the Trinity and San Jacinto and Galveston Bay rules to protect bay health.

Also posted in Central Texas, Environmental Flows, Rivers, TCEQ, Texas Rivers | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Austin Will Buy Your Grass!

This title probably doesn't mean what you think it means.   The grass to which I am referring is St Augustine, often referred to as turf grass, which requires immense amounts of water, fertilizer and work to maintain.   As you may know, the majority of domestic water use is used for outdoor watering, particularly during summer peak demand season.  Although we have seen some rain lately, the drought is far from over.  This summer's drought has necessitated additional restrictions on lawn watering and many people have seen their lawns turn brown and crispy.  Here is a solution — rip it out and get paid to do it.

Austin Water Utility (AWU) has a new pilot program that will pay citizens to remove their St. Augustine grass and replace it with more drought resistant alternatives such as buffalo or Bermuda grass.  The rebate plan will give participants $10 per 100 square feet of converted lawn.  In addition, the city offers $20 per 100 square feet to convert lawns to native plants and $30 per 100 square feet to convert to irrigation-free landscaping.  Among other factors, AWU requires that lawns have 6 inches of soil and an irrigation system inspection to check for leaks.  Depending on conditions, turf grass replacement can decrease home water use by 50% . 

Similar programs have been implemented with success in San Antonio and El Paso and are indicative of a realization that we must start to use our water more wisely and adapt to our natural environment.  The truth is that not all plants were meant to thrive in harsh Texas summers.  Some simple changes can mean more water savings and a lawn full of color

The deadline to apply for a rebate is Oct. 4 — so check out the details and get digging!

Also posted in Central Texas, Water Conservation | Tagged , | 1 Response

LCRA Considers Reducing Water for Rice

UPDATE: On September 21st, LCRA voted on a proposal(discussed below) to give coastal Texas rice farmers significantly less water next year. The proposal now to the TCEQ, which needs to approve the plan for it to go into effect.

Late last week, the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) announced that downstream rice farmers may soon be receiving less water unless is starts to rain.  Due to the extensive drought, the combined storage of lakes Travis and Buchanan have been dropping precipitously and could drop to 640,000-680,000 acre-feet by January 1, 2012.  This low level is perilously close to the 600,000 acre-foot mark making the conditions worse than the 1950s drought of record.  With weather models predicting another dry year in front of us, LCRA is attempting to save as much water in the highland lakes as possible in case no rain comes.  One way to do this is to reduce the one user who can legally lose water, agriculture.

The LCRA is a permit holder to approximately to 2.1 million acre-feet/year of Colorado River water.  They contract the water to various users including cities, industry and agriculture.  These contracts can take two forms:

1) Firm water contract mean that water is available even during a severe drought. Cities, industries and electric power plants rely on firm water supplies.

2) Interruptible water is subject to rationing or curtailment first when there isn't enough for everyone. This type of contract is primarily used for agriculture

Factors that LCRA will be taking into consideration include the combined lake storage levels at the beginning of the year as well as the weather projections.  The hope is to avoid releasing water for the start of a crop if a later release to complete the crop season won't be possible.  LCRA deems this a waste of water because the initial water is consumed, but the crop can't be realized.

In order to reduce agricultural water or implement any other measure that deviates from the Water Management Plan, the LCRA has to seek approval from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

This issue and other potential drought management options will be discussed at LCRA's Water Operations Committee September 20th and the Board Meeting on September 24th.  We will let you know what we hear.

Also posted in Central Texas, LCRA, Texas Rivers, Water Planning | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Animals Suffer Drought Too

So much of this blog lately has discussed the drought and its impact on us and our lives, but we shouldn't forget about the  animals who are feeling the pinch as much if not more than we are.   Ranchers are selling much of their livestock due to lack of hay and water, but the real victims are the animals attempting to continue their life in the wild.  Last week, when I was in far west Texas, I had a face-to-face encounter with a fox in the middle of a residential street.  Although I was thrilled to see him, I was also saddened knowing that he never would be there under normal conditions.  I spoke with several people living on the outskirts of Marfa who have noticed more javelinas and other wild animals coming close to their houses looking for food or water.

David Wolfe, EDF Texas' wildlife director, has also observed a number of direct effects: “Nighthawks foraging through the day to find enough food, purple martin hatchlings near death due to dehydration…my wife, who is a wildlife rehabber, hydrates martin hatchlings and puts them back in the nest…most survived.” Many animals that are already living in stressed conditions because of human activities are now pushed to the brink. This is particularly true of endangered species.

In the Texas Hill Country, water flow in the Comal and San Marcos Springs have become so low that endangered fish, amphibians and other animals are at risk.  To reduce loss, federal officials from the US Fish and Wildlife Service plan to capture and move endangered species in an effort to ensure their survival through this stressful period.  The evacuations will begin if water levels in the springs drops by more than another 50 percent.  Cindy Loeffler, a water resource expert with Texas Parks and Wildlife, explained that this drought is testing even the heartiest flora and fauna that can generally endure the difficult Texas weather.

As you go about your day hoping for rain, please remember those animals who are left to fend for themselves and do anything you can to help them out too. We need them.

Also posted in Central Texas, Climate Change, Drought, Edwards Aquifer, Groundwater, Texas Rivers | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Surviving Drought along the Llano

Before starting today's blog — we would like to extend our thoughts and sympathies to those who have lost homes in the Central Texas wildfires which are still raging.  In addition to the loss of personal possessions and homes, we all are heartbroken to see so much beautiful Texas land taken by this fire.  This incredible video from Texas Parks and Wildlife shows how fast this fire can move.  If you are in a situation where you are asked to evacuate, please heed the warning. 

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vhJeDYQVtdQ&feature=share

These fires are an exclamation point on an already long and dramatic drought story.  Those of us who have lived through it certainly didn't need the reminder, but this added disaster has greatly increased the national focus on Texas.  Most recently, the New York Times wrote an article on Llano, Texas.

Earlier this summer, we alerted you to water shortages on the Llano River.  The City of Llano has passed some of the strictest water restrictions in the state.  Lawn watering is limited to once a week and only in off hours and washing cars at home and filling swimming pools is completely banned.  Since the restrictions have been put in place, people are getting more efficient and creative in their use of water.  The city golf course is watered with treated grey water, which still isn't done in most major cities, and citizens are watering their trees with run-off water from their washing machines, showers and dish washing water.  They are stretching every drop.  Those who are out of drops are using dye to get that green lawn.  All of these efforts have paid off. Pumping went from 1.2-1.4 million gallons a day in May to less than 500,000 in August, a reduction of over 50%. 

Up river, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) banned all outdoor watering in Junction, Texas at the end of August.  If you are wondering how a statewide agency can ban lawn watering in a town, you first have to know a little water law.  In Texas, people who get water rights first are considered senior appropriators and those who come later are junior appropriators.  These water rights are issued by the TCEQ.  When water runs low and everyone's needs can't be met, the junior appropriators can be forced to reduce their pumping to allow the senior folks to get as much of their right as possible.  This is often referred to as "first in time, first in right."  The City of Junction, is a junior appropriator so the TCEQ can reduce their water pumping.  The TCEQ stated that they have the legal right to do this in order to ensure sufficient quantities of drinking water are maintained.  This ban on watering has caused some tension between Junction and Llano since Llano still allows some limited watering at least to save trees.  Junction is hoping to negotiate a similar arrangement with the TCEQ. 

This story is  just another example of how we are all in this together.  No one city or person can use water without thinking about someone else's water needs.  Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying, "it is when the well is dry that we know the price of water."  Texas may not yet know the price, but we are certainly understanding its value.

Also posted in Central Texas, Regional Planning Process, Texas Rivers, Water Conservation | Tagged , , | 1 Response

Can LCRA “just say no” to White Stallion?

This post was coauthored by Nadine Orrell and Marita Mirzatuny of the EDF Austin Office.

The battle for Colorado River water continues with a new move against White Stallion.  To recap – the issue is whether the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) has the discretion to deny a water contract with the proposed White Stallion Coal Plant even if the water is “available” under normal conditions.   The problem is – what is normal these days?  In all too familiar dry conditions, other users such as the downstream rice farmers would have to reduce or stop their water use.  Since we do not know if the current drought conditions will continue, is now the time to make long-term commitments of “firm” water by granting the White Stallion Water Contract?

The Argument

LCRA’s position is that if water is available to meet a request for supply and an applicant complies with LCRA rules, LCRA must complete the contact.  The LCRA Board believes that it lacks discretion to deny the White Stallion water contract for water from “firm” supplies if those supplies were available, even if such action would force rice farmers to not have water in low water years.  However, new information indicates that the LCRA Board may have more discretion than they previously thought. 

The New Twist

 An August 29, 2011, letter from attorneys (and former Texas Commission for Environmental Quality commissioner Larry Soward) for the advocacy group No Coal Coalition to the LCRA Board of Directors, explained that the law gives the LCRA broad authority and discretion to deny the While Stallion Water Contract.  In its letter, the No Coal Coalition explained that the Texas Constitution, LCRA’s Enabling Legislation and its Water Management Plan (WMP) give LCRA the power to say no to water contracts even if the water is available under normal conditions. 

Section 59, Article XVI of the Texas Constitution gives LCRA the ability to “control, store, preserve and distribute” the waters of its rivers and streams.   LCRA’s Enabling Legislation § 8503.004, states that LCRA “may control, store, and preserve” and “may use, distribute, and sell” its waters.   Its Enabling Legislation § 8503.004(u) actually gives LCRA plenary authority to “do any and all other acts or things necessary or convenient… to the exercise of all…authority or functions conferred …by the constitution, this chapter, or any law.”   LCRA’s WMP further requires LCRA to act as a steward and exercise discretion in its role as a water manager, overseeing firm and interruptible users, and engaging in long-term planning.  In this case, that might not include the committed 25,400 acre-feet (or 8 x 109 gallons!) to a new coal plant.

Although the vote on White Stallion is currently postponed, similar issues still remain. Considering the drought conditions that we have experienced here in Texas, LCRA should exercise its broad authority and discretion to control its water contracts and just say no to White Stallion Water and others like them.

Also posted in Central Texas, Energy-Water Nexus, LCRA, Texas Rivers, Water Conservation, Water Planning | Tagged , , , , | 1 Response

While some cities increase conservation – Plainview asks "pretty please"

The water situation in Texas is becoming dire.  It's that simple.  It hasn't rained substantially in over a year and climate models show that it is likely to stay dry, which means most cities will enter into next summer at a huge deficit.  This drought has surpassed being an inconvenience and is threatening ways of life.  Due to the strain this is placing on water resources, many cities are finally starting to respond.  As we mentioned, Austin Water Utility will be implementing Stage II restrictions next week.  Houston and Dallas have started watering restrictions as well, meanwhile cities like Corpus are doing nothing and Plainview and surrounding cities are just asking pretty please.   

In the wake of an announcement that Lake Meredith, a reservoir built to serve Lubbock and surrounding communities, will be too dry to use in the future, cities such as Plainview and Lubbock are still just "encouraging" their citizens to conserve.  Judging from the water running down Lubbock's streets and the puddles on Tech campus, it isn't working.  A quick visit to the Lubbock water utility's website reveals no watering schedule or other limitations on water use.  It is as if nothing we can do can make a difference, but nothing could be further from the truth.  

Just look at El Paso or a host of other cities who have changed the trajectory of their usage by taking charge. Asking pretty please isn't enough.  Cities need conservation programs that include education, incentive and rebate programs and regulations.  It isn't just the right thing to do. It's their job.

Also posted in Central Texas, Ogallala, Regional Planning Process, Resources, Water Conservation, Water Planning | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Austin Kicks in Watering Restrictions . . . Finally!

Austin Water Utility (AWU)   just announced that Stage II water restrictions will finally be in effect by early September.  This is just a few days earlier than they were implemented in 2009 (August 24).   Among other things, Stage II requirements include once weekly watering, asking for water at a restaurant (can't we do this all the time?), and perhaps most importantly it means fines and enforcement.  If you see a water waster, please call 3-1-1 and report them.

Two is One

First, we need to clarify something.  Although AWU calls this Stage II, for all practical purposes it is really Stage I.  AWU's Stage I is actually the current norm because they were never lifted after the 2009 drought.  Stage II is the first time this year that AWU has required citizens to reduce their water usage more than their usual watering allowance.  The Stage II triggers are defined in the Drought Contingency Plan, which the city is required to file with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) every five years.  It can either be triggered by a supply deficiency if the combined highland lakes storage dips below 900,000 acre-feet or if demand exceeds 260 million gallons a day (mgd) for 3 days or 270 mgd for one day. Although we haven't quite reached the 900,000 acre-feet trigger, LCRA predicts it will happen next week.  Stage II can also be declared by the City Manager without the triggers being reached.

The interesting detail is that the Drought Contingency Plan doesn't provide any scientific reasoning for the trigger numbers.  When you consider the dry year we have had, one may wonder why reductions weren't implemented earlier like we have seen in other cities. Perhaps it is time to review and update the triggers.  If you can recall back in 2009, although Stage II severely reduced pumping, the only thing that really relieved the situation were the fall rains because the lake levels were already so low when reductions were implemented.   I shudder to think about where we would have been the following summer had that not occurred.  Hopefully, something similar will happen this year.  Until then, Austin will have to come together as a community and adjust to these new, important water saving rules.

Also posted in Central Texas, Water Conservation, Water Planning | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

What Can You Do About the Texas Drought?

This post was written by Jennifer Walker, Water Resources Specialist, Lone Star Chapter, Sierra Club

All you have to do it look outside to know that Texas is in the grips of a severe drought and that people and wildlife are having a hard time as a result.  While we can’t control the weather, there are things that we can do everyday in our homes and businesses to help conserve water and ensure there is enough for people and the environment during these dry times.

We have assembled some of our favorite tips below.  Every drop of water saved is important and with no end in sight for this drought, it is necessary.  This isn’t about giving up necessities; it all comes down to using only what you need. 

This list is by no means exhaustive. There are plenty more things that you can do to conserve water.  Find out what works best for you and your family and go for it!

 

Top 10 Tips to Conserve Water:

1. Only run the dishwasher or washing machine with a full load.  If it is time to replace either of these appliances, check in with your utility about rebates for water-conserving versions and purchase those instead.    As an added measure, try running these late at night (many dishwashers have a delay function) then you can save energy too (which saves more water)

2. Water your lawn on the right day.  Are you odd or even?  Most Texas cities restrict outdoor water use to one or two days a week during times of drought. Save water and avoid fines by learning and following your city’s schedule. If your city doesn’t have a schedule, pick a day and stick to it. 

3. Catch the condensation from your AC unit and use it in your yard.  Depending on how your air conditioner is programmed, it can produce gallons of water per day.  Catch that water in a bucket and put it on your garden, shrubs and trees. 

4. Turn the water off when you brush your teeth. This simple step can save up to 8 gallons of water per day. 

5. Fix leaky faucets.  Leaky faucets can waste up to 7 gallons of water per day.  To check for leaks at home, read your water meter and avoid using water for 2 hours.  Read the meter again after this period.  If the amount is different you have a leak. 

6. Fix running toilets.  Running toilets can waste a lot of water.  Fix these leaks as soon as you find them.  Check with the manufacturer of your toilet for the proper replacement “flapper” to ensure maximum efficiency.  

7. Inspect your irrigation system. Have your system inspected by your water utility or a certified irrigator to make sure it is operating correctly, identify any problems and help you set it to run more efficiently.  Many cities offer free inspections.

8. Install faucet aerators and low-flow showerheads.  These water saving devices are cheap and easy to install.  Many utilities give them away to their customers.  Check with your utility and pick up a few extras to share with your neighbors!

9. Install a high efficiency toilet. Toilets account for about 25% of water used in the home.  Depending on the age of your toilet, you can save up to 5 gallons per flush by replacing older models.  Check with your city for possible rebates. If you can’t get a low flow toilets right away, put a water bottle in the tank until you can.

10. Make water conservation a whole-family activity.  Challenge your family members to think of new ways to save water and to be part of the solution.

Check out the links below for more ideas and be sure and check with your local water utility for rebates and offers for upgrades and updates. 

Want to learn more about water conservation?

Want to learn more about the drought? 

Also posted in Central Texas, Climate Change, Environmental Flows, Texas Rivers, Water Conservation, Water Planning | Tagged , | 1 Response

It's Back to the Drawing Board for White Stallion

Just a quick update on something we have been following.  It seems that the vote on the contract to provide White Stallion coal plant with Colorado River water has been indefinitely postponed

The Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) vote, which had been previously postponed until August 10 is now back at the negotiating table.  It seems that White Stallion has significantly changed the terms of the contract. 

The proposed changes include extending the amount of time White Stallion officials would have to pay LRCRA $55 million, which was to be used for water infrastructure development.  The new proposal also includes lower fees for White Stallion. 

It is unclear how long this will deltay the vote, but we will keep our eyes on it and let you know.

Also posted in Central Texas, Energy-Water Nexus, Houston, LCRA, Texas Rivers, Water Planning | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment