Leak No More: Paul Robbins on Austin Water

New report criticizes Austin Water's conservation efforts

Paul Robbins
Paul Robbins (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Last week, environmental activist and gadfly Paul Robbins released a report – "Read It and Leak" – deeply critical of city water utility Austin Water's current conservation efforts. Robbins has been involved with resource management advocacy and research in Austin for more than three decades, and his 67-page analysis grants little quarter, taking aim even at AW's most successful programs. "In recent years," he writes, the utility's "momentum [on conservation] has stalled, the leadership has faltered, and the record of various programs is checkered."

In response, AW Assistant Director Daryl Slusher defended the utility, asking that if the momentum has indeed stalled, "How does one explain ... a dramatic drop in water usage since 2007?" Robbins readily admits that the utility has gotten some things right. While heavy rainfall in 2007 and 2010 partly explains the drop, Robbins also credits the utility's emergency restrictions – a successful combination of once-a-week watering, heavy public outreach, and citations for noncompliance – during the drought in 2009. "To make sense of why these numbers were so low," Robbins says, he analyzed 10 years' worth of data, month by month, considering rainfall and other factors. What he found is that those three months of restrictions and citations were so effective that even once they ended in November 2009, "people still remembered the drought and adjusted their irrigation habits."

"The report is a policy audit; it is not a hatchet job," says Robbins. "I gave them credit when it was due. More often, I criticized it because that was due." Even the watering restrictions, says Robbins – the utility's "most effective program" – would be "more effective if granted adequate resources." Despite the lessons learned from the drought, the watering restrictions program (which limits watering to two days per week) suffers from understaffing and weak enforcement, he reports. He also writes that it lacks "alternative compliance" options – such as exemptions for less wasteful systems like drip irrigation – found in other Texas cities.

"We feel that the water schedule, as it is right now, is absolutely working," says Drema Gross, manager of AW's water conservation division. Alternative compliance adds "tremendously" to the utility's "enforcement burden" and involves technologies "that require a high degree of control on the user's end, so there's doubt as to exactly how much water those would save," she adds. Regarding enforcement, she says AW's efforts "are proportional to the drought stage we're in." In a "critical drought situation," she says, the utility steps up citations and beefs up staffing. "But I wouldn't want folks getting too comfortable thinking that's the only time we would step up enforcement," Slusher adds. "We are going to have either sweeps or increased enforcement from time to time – when you're enforcing things, you don't always say exactly when you're going to do everything."

Robbins is not persuaded. If the utility "wants this program to perform optimally," he replies flatly, "it will provide more enforcement staff and issue more citations."

While Robbins takes care to divide several programs among lists of winners, losers, and underachievers, he writes that "even the most successful programs" aren't performing "optimally." For instance, despite dramatically stepped-up efforts at fixing system leaks (through which AW loses an estimated 4 billion gallons of water a year, according to the report), AW spent only 75% of the funds allocated to water main rehabilitation between 2007 and 2010. "We did more with less," responds Slusher. "Usually you're criticized for spending too much, not spending too little." Still, as the report notes, while the utility replaced four miles of lines last year, that amounts to only a small fraction of the system's 3,637 total miles, of which 1,050 are made of outdated cast-iron pipe, considered a priority for replacement. "The 2010 replacement rate would remove 0.38% of cast iron infrastructure annually," reads the report. "At this rate, it would take 263 years to completely replace this material. If one assumes [a] higher replacement rate of 14.5 miles in 2012" – the utility's goal – "this figure rises to 1.38% per year." Even at that rate, says Robbins, it would take 72 years.

"That is true, we have a lot of cast-iron pipe in the ground we're unable to replace as fast as we'd really like," admits Slusher, but he continues, "That's probably true of just about every utility in the nation." Gross adds that the central-city location of much of the cast-iron pipe also poses challenges to replacement. Still, she says, according to the American Water Works Association's Infrastructure Leakage Index, AW scores well.

There's no single initiative to which Rob­bins' report attributes all the utility's ills. Instead, he laboriously addresses each program's missed opportunities, no matter how small. Alone, each flaw may seem insignificant, but as with a dripping faucet, they can add up. In short, he maintains that savings achieved in recent years have occurred despite underlying flaws, and that better practices would likely push consumption down much further – posing a threat to already dwindling revenue, putting more upward pressure on rates, and throwing the spotlight once more on the under-construction Water Treatment Plant No. 4. "At this point in the utility's history, conservation and new treatment infrastructure are direct competitors," Robbins writes. "In addition to avoiding new construction projects, [AW] should investigate ways to obtain value from water that is essentially free. This would create more economic incentive to conserve." See the report here.

Win Some, Lose Some

Among the programs covered in Paul Robbins' report, "Read It and Leak," 20 were recommended by the Water Conservation Task Force in 2007. Looking back at those programs' progress over the last four years, Rob­bins divides them into winners, losers, and underachievers. But, a caveat: "Just because a program is a Loser does not mean it cannot be made to work," writes Robbins. "And just because a program is a Winner does not mean it is free of problems. Indeed, some of the best working programs could be operating much better than they are now."

WINNERS:

Enhanced water-use management

Reclaimed water use

Reducing water loss

Residential irrigation standards

Plumbing code changes

Commercial irrigation standards

Pressure reduction program

Enhanced public education

UNDERACHIEVERS:

Utility water rates

City facility conservation

LOSERS:

Mandatory plumbing fixture retrofit

Annual irrigation system analyses

Cooling tower management

Enhanced irrigation audit program

Residential landscape ordinance

Commercial clothes washers

Tenant water metering and billing

Winter leak detection program

WaterWise landscape option

Car wash standards

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin Water, water conservation, Paul Robbins, Daryl Slusher, Drema Gross, Water Treatment Plant No. 4

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