Off to a Rough Start for New Austin Water Conservation Plan

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

The council meeting
Last Thursday,  Austin Water Utility (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 gallons per person 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 seemingly 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.” 

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 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. 

We all know that 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 characterize the plan as 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.  At the request of 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 that is hesitant 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 lawns 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. 

Post by Jennifer Walker, Lone Star Chapter Sierra Club and Amy Hardberger, Environmental Defense Fund

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