Reading the Meter: The Robbins Report

Highlights from Robbins' report 'Read It and Leak'

Reading the Meter: The Robbins Report
Photo by Jana Birchum

Environmental activist Paul Robbins charges that misallocation of resources among Austin Water conservation programs has undermined cost-effectiveness and water savings, and that AW is letting budget shortfalls compromise conservation programs, while proceeding on Water Treatment Plant No. 4. He identifies the following recommendations as "immediate actions" to improve conservation efforts. (See his report, "Read It and Leak," here.)

Robbins Recommendations/AW Responses:

1) Transfer Water Conservation Division out of AW: Robbins believes "there is an inherent conflict of interest in administering programs that save water inside an agency that sells it."

AW Assistant Director Daryl Slusher points to a 2009 study conducted by the city's Human Resources Department concluding that AW is the best location for the Water Conservation Division. He also says the arrangement helps incorporate "conservation consciousness into the entire utility" and credits it for recent achievements, including improvements to water main rehabilitation and repair.

2) Avoid new construction projects (e.g., WTP4); monetize current surplus capacity to "create more economic incentive to conserve" and to provide funding for conservation efforts: Given AW's abundant "base supply of water" that is either free (through run-of-the-river rights) or prepaid, AW "should evaluate 'leasing' some of its 'free' water to LCRA," allowing the utility to postpone costly projects.

Citing "significant policy and legal issues," AW spokeswoman Jill Mayfield responds: "The City is not interested in pursuing this at this time."

3) Gather more local conservation data; improve methodologies for evaluating savings: Robbins charges that a lack of accurate, local savings data skews AW's monthly reported savings estimates and hinders planning for future programs.

Water Conservation Division Manager Drema Gross points to improvements (hiring a full-time senior research analyst and planning to hire a conservation program coordinator) but also defends the use of data obtained from studies elsewhere: "When we can use data from established research organizations ... there's no need to reinvent the wheel." Gross also disputes Robbins' analysis of AW's irrigation audit savings studies.

4) Implement a more strategic, cost-effective approach to replacing/recycling inefficient toilets: Robbins criticizes AW's free toilet giveaway program and proposes several improvements, including more emphasis on toilet replacement in high-flush environments ("restaurants, schools, office buildings" vs. residential) and better toilet recycling (in 2009-10, toilet replacement sent 2,000 tons of porcelain to area landfills).

AW does plan to end the residential/multifamily free toilet program in December and pursue "a contract to expand its capability" to audit and provide efficiency rebates for commercial/institutional customers, and encourages the Solid Waste Services Department "to include porcelain recycling in their master plan."

5) Assign a full-time staff member to the commercial program: Savings over the last few years have dropped, Robbins writes, "probably due to lack of staff to run this program" (despite, in 2008, a dramatic increase of the rebate offer).

Mayfield says AW is "pursuing a contract to conduct commercial facility audits" and proposes hiring a full-time employee "to provide audit and rebate assistance and coordinate ... marketing."

6) Beef up inspection, enforcement, funding, and education for the watering restrictions ordinance: Restrictions implemented in 2008 (limiting irrigation to twice a week) have proven tremendously successful, exceeding 2007 goals, but Robbins links the most dramatic savings to periods of increased outreach and enforcement, and he proposes improvement in those areas.

AW's 140 Plan acknowledges the need for "strong enforcement" and proposes designating infractions as "administrative" fines on water bills rather than staff- and time-intensive "criminal" fines, which require "resolution through municipal court."

7) Sign up for Austin Energy's GreenChoice renewable power program: AW is extremely energy-intensive – responsible for 47.1% of city departments' total energy usage – and plans to sign up in October for the current batch of GreenChoice (renewable energy). Robbins faults the utility for waiting so long; previous batches were less expensive.

According to Slusher, the move would have used too much of those earlier batches, which were intended primarily for the public. AW Climate Program coordinator David Greene says other measures – e.g., solar panels at the 51st Street reclaimed water tower and Glen Bell Service Center – reduce AW's total power consumption, making GreenChoice "more feasible."

8) Accelerate expansion of the reclaimed water supply system: Providing treated wastewater to customers for nonpotable uses (irrigation, toilet flushing, etc.) reduces demand for fresh water. Robbins believes accelerated expansion could reduce peak demand by about 40 million gallons per day, and that AW has underestimated potential demand.

Mayfield believes Robbins' analysis "likely overstates potable water system reductions," and cites financial and demand hurdles to acceleration.

9) Reinstate assessment of smart meters. Because of revenue shortfalls, AW canceled a smart meter feasibility study, a move Robbins believes is short-sighted given long-term administrative cost savings and decreased water use associated with smart meters.

Mayfield notes that up-front costs of such a system would "have a rate impact," and says AW is researching the technology through a pilot commercial program and the Pecan Street Project.

10) Consider "early break-out" of some 140 Plan strategies. Robbins supports several 140 Plan proposals, including the measure decriminalizing watering restrictions ordinance citations, mandatory audits for large consumers, a pilot program for adding soil to institutional/commercial landscapes, a cooling tower retrofit program, and a retrofit program targeting high-use businesses (e.g., hotels).

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