Selected tag(s): Municipal water conservation

New Report Criticizes Austin Water Utility

Last post, I discussed water challenges arising all over the state.  Certainly, Texas isn’t the only place struggling with these issues and echoing my blog, a new book explains it is outdated to assume that when we turn on the tap, the water will be there. 

Where there are water shortages, there should be conservation.  Unfortunately, a recent report by a local group says that isn’t the case in Austin. Paul Robbins’s report “Read It and Leak” focuses on Austin Water Utility’s (AWU) conservation programs.  The self-described policy audit gives credit to the utility for some programs, but Robbins concludes that there are continuing problems in the infrastructure, rate structure and management of the water utility. Experienced conservationists Chris Herbert of the Austin Resource Management Commission and Luke Metzger of Environment Texas agree.  Metzger stated “this report leaves you wondering if we’ll make any major progress.”

Among the report’s findings are the following highlights:

  • Austin’s water rates are the highest combined water/wastewater rates of the 10 largest cities in Texas
  • Momentum on water conservation has stalled
  • There is a lack of staffing on programs that could increase efficiencies (i.e. commercial retrofit program, enforcement of two-day mandatory watering restrictions)
  • Austin needs to making the alternative rate structure more effective
  • Lack of enforcement for the limited watering ordinance
  • More than 1,000 miles of old cast-iron water mains prone to leaking requiring effectively identifying infrastructure improvement needs

For its part, AWU defends their programs by pointing to a drop in usage.  Robbins feels much of this reduction was due to natural conditions such as rainfall and the emergency reductions put into place in 2009, which doesn’t constitute a conservation program.  This report highlights the complex issues created by water.  One thing is clear — we need to stop making bad assumptions and start planning for the reality we are living in.

Posted in Austin, Central Texas, Water Conservation, Water Planning | Also tagged , | Leave a comment

Another Disappointing Day in Austin Water Conservation

This blog post was co-authored by Jennifer Walker at the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club and Marita Mirzatuny
of EDF

Water conservation is back on the Austin City Council agenda and once again Austin is all wet.

The council meeting

Last week, Austin Water Utilities (AWU) presented their 140 gallons per capita per day (GCPD) Conservation Plan report,  which proposes programs to achieve the goal of reducing water use to the state-recommended 140 GPCD daily use by 2020 while still enabling us to meet the growing city's water demand.

Although this is a laudable goal, which a self-touted environmental city like Austin should embrace, the proposal was met with a lack of enthusiasm by Mayor Lee Leffingwell and AWU alike, even though it was their proposal.  Rather than focusing on the 61 potential solutions for water conservation, AWU focused on a couple of controversial watering reduction measures that Leffingwell called "draconian" because they would "begin making water-conservation steps mandatory instead of voluntary."  We would argue that some water conservation should be mandatory to ensure savings.

AWU's presentation focused heavily on raising rates or fees to cover $100 million of lost revenue and for the future.  Oddly, there was no mention of the $450 million dollar expenditure for their Water Treatment Plant 4 (WTP4). Quick memory trip – Austin was promised by the Mayor AND AWU officials that WTP4 would not be in lieu of water conservation.

Revenues and conservation are not mutually exclusive.  Other cities with robust water conservation programs have figured out ways to address this issue.  Raising rates and adding fees is not the only tool that AWU has at its disposal.  Why shouldn’t Austin access the expertise of other similarly situated cities such as San Antonio or LA?

The “controversial” plan

One allegedly controversial proposal would limit new permanent irrigation systems to only part of a property based on a formula.  In addressing this proposal, Leffingwell stated it would amount to "trying to alter lifestyles and be a radical departure" from what the city already has in place. But isn't it time for a change?

Let’s face it – lawn watering is where our biggest conservation potential lies.  Lawn watering can account for up to 50% of water consumed, dropping slightly to 38% in non-summer months. The  measures presented by AWU such as extending twice weekly watering restrictions for single family customers and landscape incentive programs are common in many large cities and are already in place for most AWU customer classes.

While we agree that some of the elements AWU presented were impractical and too bureaucratic, it is disappointing to hear the mayor call the plan overbearing and unreasonable.  This is especially true when the report was commissioned and paid for by city dollars. Irrigation isn’t the only solution, but it clearly should be included if we are serious about conservation.

Leffingwell states that these measures are too drastic for even cities in the desert, but many cities have implemented similar plans with climates similar to Austin’s and we don’t have to remember far back to know that Austin can get pretty dry pretty fast.

Thankfully, not everyone on Austin's City Council was so pessimistic. Council Member Chris Riley saw the benefit of further water conservation measures and asked earnest questions looking for solutions like imposing penalties versus mandatory restrictions and working with early adopters like in the green building program. Several council members also noted the need to fundamentally change the AWU business model.

The big picture

Austin needs leadership on water.  When called to conserve Austinites answer, but this needs to be more than a reaction to a water emergency. It needs to be a way of life.  At the request Council, the Citizen’s Water Conservation Implementation Task force volunteered hundreds of hours to help AWU plan for the future and now we have gone backward.  We have a water utility that doesn’t seem to believe in the plan they created and a Mayor seemingly unwilling to lead us into a truly sustainable water use future as promised and the loser is Austin.

Austin's population is growing rapidly.  We are going to have to step it up and change the way we do things if we want to stay ahead of the curve and ensure sustainability.  That doesn’t mean no lawn or pools, but it does mean that we need to make smart, innovative choices about the way we live with and use water in our community. We hope AWU and Austin City Council stand by their promises and support this vision rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Posted in Austin, Central Texas, Climate Change, Resources, Rivers, Texas Rivers, Water Conservation, Water Planning | Also tagged , , | 1 Response

New Report: Seven Ways to Reduce Texas' Outdoor Water Use

Guest post by Lacey McCormick, Communications Manager for National Wildlife Federation.

Last week, the National Wildlife Federation and the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra club released a new report, Sprayed Away: Seven Ways to Reduce Texas' Outdoor Water Use, examining seasonal changes in water use in 18 cities across the state. We found that water use rose 58% during July, August and September when compared to December, January and February.

Reducing the amount of water we use during the summer offers easy savings. Some experts estimate that about half the water we use on our landscapes is wasted to due to evaporation, overwatering and run-off.

In the report, we calculated how much water each of these 18 cities could save every day during the summer if they cut outdoor water use by 25%. The potential is staggering:

  • Austin: 13.9 million gallons a day
  • Dallas: 22.7 million gallons a day
  • Fort Worth: 27.6 million gallons a day
  • Houston: 17.6 million gallons a day
  • Plano: 10.4 million gallons a day

Is a 25% reduction in outdoor water use realistic? Cities around the country have proved it is possible time and time again. One local example: the San Antonio Water System estimates it has cut outdoor water use by 30%.

The report recommends seven efficiency measures that have a proven track report at reducing landscaping water use. Read More »

Posted in Austin, Central Texas, Corpus Christi, Dallas, El Paso, Ft. Worth, Resources, san antonio, Water Conservation, Water Planning | Also tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cities are embracing conservation and getting good results

When it comes to water, this take-or-pay approach is at a minimum a disincentive to conserving water.

A couple of interesting examples of municipal water conservation have crossed my desk lately; one has been in place for a while with great results and the other is just starting up.  Both are great models for other cities facing water supply challenges. 

The Success Story

The LA Times recently reported that Los Angeles’s February 2010 water use was the lowest it has been in 31 years!   That’s right. Even though the city grew by one million people, overall water use declined.  The 30 billion gallons saved in the last nine months is enough to supply more than half of Austin for a year.  If that doesn’t illustrate the power of conservation, I don’t know what will. 

Current water use in LA is 20% less than in was in 2007.   Officials think that the decrease was originally motivated by the 2007 intense drought conditions. The residential user now uses 30% less than they did in February 1997. 

The New Story

The Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex has often been criticized for its lack of conservation efforts, but times seem to be changing.  When the 16-country North Texas planning area rolled out is water supply plan for the next 50 years, conservation and reuse was projected to account for 23% of future water supply.  Perhaps this was the result of the realization of regional water shortages in the future and the understanding that saving water is a lot cheaper than large pipeline projects. 

Now there is news of a public education campaign run by the Tarrant Regional Water District encouraging citizens to save water during the summer.   The media campaign focuses on outdoor and indoor water conservation opportunities.  Education campaigns such as these are a long term investment in creating a conservation culture. 

Clearly there is a lot of work still to be done in this region and we would love to see an increase in the conservation only targets, but it’s an improvement. Hopefully some day we will hear LA-style success stories in North Texas.

Posted in Dallas, Water Conservation, Water Planning | Also tagged , | Leave a comment

Austin Water Conservation Task Force Provides Council with Next Steps

Guest blog written by Jennifer Walker.  Jennifer works on water issues at the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club and serves at the vice-chair of the CWCITF.

Most Monday nights for the last 6 months, the Austin Citizens Water Conservation Implementation Task Force (CWCITF) has been hard at work.  Now they’ll finally get a night off because, at their last meeting, the task force unanimously passed the Water Conservation 2020: Strategic Recommendations report. 

Where it all began

On August 5, 2009, the Austin City Council charged the CWCITF to produce a policy document that recommended strategies to reduce water use beyond the 2007 Task Force recommendations.  The CWCITF worked with Austin Water Utility  (AWU) staff and representatives from the Resource Management Commission, Environmental Board, Water and Wastewater Commission to produce this document

Report Highlights

The document contains over 100 strategies with 33 prioritized. Report highlights include recommendations for:

  • a citywide goal of 140 gallons per capita per day (GPCD) by 2020
  • increasing conservation education for all age groups
  • expanding water reuse and
  • increasing landscape measures to reduce peak summer watering

Next Steps

The report also requests that city staff perform quantitative analysis of the strategies (which has already begun) and to use that information, as well as other information in the report, to map out the strategies that will need to be implemented to meet the report's goals.  That “action plan” should be ready by the end of 2010.  This report gives the city the opportunity to rethink that way we use water in our community while being mindful to all water users and their needs.  It is an exciting time in Austin. 

The report will be presented to City Council for approval on Earth Day, April 22nd .  What better way to celebrate the Earth than to make a community commitment to use our water wisely and responsibly?

Posted in Austin, Central Texas, Water Conservation | Also tagged , , | 2 Responses

Well designed rates can reduce water usage – just ask San Antonio

In an effort to further reduce water use, San Antonio Water System (SAWS) proposed a new rate structure to the City Council on Wednesday that would penalize high-volume users while rewarding those who use less.  The new rate structure will reduce rates for normal households, using 7,000-8,000 gallons per month, while increasing rates for the top 7% of all users by 13.8%. SAWS is hoping that the change will impact behavior, causing high users to use less.  Saved water can reduce the need for a utility to find new supply or build new infrastructure, which can be very expensive. 

Last November, Austin implemented a long awaited fifth tier for customers using more than 25,000 gallons a month. Unfortunately, many Texas cities do not have a conservation oriented rate structure.  Hopefully, these cities can learn a lesson from their neighbors as an effective way to save money and save water.

Posted in Austin, san antonio, Water Conservation | Also tagged , , , | Leave a comment

It’s FIX-A-LEAK week

Even the EPA knows how much water Texas can save. Well – not exactly, but EPA does realize that “Texas sized saving” equals a lot of water!!!  Across the country, household leaks are wasting more than 1 trillion gallons of water per year—enough water to supply every home in Texas with its annual water needs.  Fixing leaks are a great place to start saving water.  “Easy-to-fix leaks in the average American home waste enough water each year to fill a backyard swimming pool,” said Peter Silva, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Water.  That’s why March 15-21 is Fix a Leak week. 

Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and Laredo are already participating in the program. If your city isn’t one of these, just check out the list of things you can do on your own.  A quick trip to Home Depot could save you some cash on your monthly water bill.  Hopefully, more Texas cities will embrace this simple opportunity for savings and join EPA in this challenge.

Posted in Water Conservation | Also tagged | 1 Response

Drop by Drop: Seven Ways Texas Cities Can Conserve Water

Guest post by Ken Kramer, Director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.

The best and cheapest source of water is the one that’s already on tap.

Unfortunately for Texas – which is the fastest growing state in the union – a new report from National Wildlife Federation and the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club concludes that most cities are not making the most existing use of their water supplies.

Drop by Drop: Seven Ways Texas Cities Can Conserve Water describes and recommends seven efficiency measures that have a proven track report at reducing water use, then it reviews 19 Texas cities to see how they measure up.


The cities surveyed were rated on several of those measures, including:

Water Pricing Structure: The report recommends a strongly tiered rate structure with affordable prices for those who use water efficiently and effectively higher water rates for customers who use excessive amounts of water. Austin was the only city whose residential use pricing structure earned a "Strong" rating, while Beaumont, Lubbock and Plano all had rate structures that, when assessed as an effective rate, offered significant discounts for high users, thereby encouraging wasteful water use.

Water Savings Goals: Texas cities are required to create conservation plans with five- and ten-year water use reduction goals, however many cities set easily-achievable but not very impressive targets. Dallas, for example, had the highest rate of per capita water use in our review and committed to just a modest reduction. On the other hand, San Antonio-which has already achieved impressive reductions in per capita water use-committed to continued reductions. Read More »

Posted in Resources, Water Conservation | Also tagged , | Leave a comment