Drought? What Drought?

Just because we have a huge water supply doesn't mean we have to use it

On Tuesday, Sept. 6, Austin moves to mandatory Stage 2 water restrictions, meaning nonessential water usage, like lawn-watering, will be limited to once a week instead of twice. First-time violators will receive an official warning, and repeat offenders may be fined up to $475. Sound tough? Not really. Considering the many months we've been slogging through this record-breaking dry season, you have to wonder what took the city so long to act.

Austin has a long history of paying lip service to a handful of high-profile issues, and water – or conserving it, in this case – happens to be one of them. Just to be clear, the inherent trademark of foot-dragging and reversals on water policy goes back decades; it didn't just emerge under the existing administration. There was one period during the boom years when city staffers were beating a silver path to the higher-paying Lower Colorado River Auth­or­ity, which at the time was bending over backward to build water lines out to newly carved subdivisions in the Hill Country. This pattern of jumping ship to work for an agency in the business of selling water did little to buoy the city's attempts to implement significant and consistent – consistent being the operative word – water-saving programs. (See "Naked City," Jan. 11, 2002.)

Austin is fortunate to have a wealth of water quality and conservation activists who continue to question and challenge local officials to prove how much they care about water. The city is also fortunate to be sitting on a sizeable water supply, thanks to its water rights purchase in 1999. The problem is, that comfort level may be getting in the way of the city actually taking this drought seriously.

Last Thursday, Aug. 25, two members of the city's Resource Management Com­mis­sion, Chair Leo Dielmann and former Chair Christine Herbert, appeared before City Council to deliver a briefing on the current status of the city's water conservation endeavors. They brought with them environmental activist Paul Robbins to provide the "public" component of the presentation. Robbins has written an extensive report, "Read It and Leak," on the city's record on water conservation.* Dielmann and Herbert laid out the RMC's work with a citizens stakeholder group that helped draw up a comprehensive set of recommendations the RMC submitted to Austin Water in early 2010. The idea was that the water utility would take the recommendations and use them to fashion a conservation plan, with input from the RMC and citizen advocates.

But as Dielmann and Herbert told council, Austin Water officials took the recommendations and ... disappeared for nine months, emerging before council (bypassing the RMC) with an altogether different "140 Plan," which the council adopted as a resolution. The goal of the plan is to reduce water usage to 140 gallons per capita per day by 2020. (For more, see "Water Fall," June 17.)

Lack of Transparency

"Our feeling on the plan as it currently stands is it hasn't been thoroughly vetted," Herbert said. While the utility is doing some good things on the conservation front, she said, it could be doing so much more to make substantial progress in a community that has already embraced conservation as a way of life. Specifically, the plan provides no way to monitor progress, to take corrective action when problems are spotted, or to address future planning. "Being a pipeline for citizen advocacy, you know, we hear a lot of the folks come in and talk about their concerns about transparency," Herbert said. What the RMC wants is for Austin Water to start thinking outside the box by allowing citizens or city commissions to play a larger role in the plan's oversight and implementation. With stronger conservation measures and water triggers in place, the city could move more quickly on responding to drought conditions "rather than waiting until September," she added.

While Mayor Lee Leffingwell expressed concern about some of the recommendations that Austin Water apparently ignored – such as providing regular audits of the city's 900 properties with more than an acre of irrigation – overall he was quick to defend the utility on several points, including its decision to wait until September to enact Stage 2 measures. Cities that do more than what Austin is doing, the mayor continued, are doing so because they have a limited amount of resources. "They don't have enough water supply, so they have to conserve. That is not the case with us."

Leffingwell recounted how the city in 1999 bought water entitlements from the LCRA, which upped Austin's guaranteed supply from 150,000 acre-feet up to 325,000 acre-feet per year. We're currently using 160,000 acre-feet, according to AW Director Greg Meszaros. The city paid LCRA $100 million outright for the deal, but it should be noted that the LCRA had initially approached the city with an offer to sell the water for more than $1 billion and gave council a very short deadline to vote on the proposal. Sound familiar? It should, because that's how a lot of deals almost, almost, go down at the city, but for an army of watchdogs activating the alarm that forces everybody back to the table for a public airing and, if we're lucky, a better deal than what was originally put before council.

Once Robbins had finished his portion of the briefing, Council Member Bill Spelman inadvertently opened the door for the elephant in the room – Water Treatment Plant No. 4 – the very topic that Leffingwell had tried to steer clear of as part of the discussion. Referring to Austin's ample water supply, Spelman asked, "Why would it make sense not to use every bit of it?"

"Well," Robbins replied, "one [reason] is you have to build new water treatment plants, and given how much fun we're having with the current water treatment plant, I can't help but believe that you don't want to build any more of them."

Point Austin returns Sept. 16.

*In the print edition and a previous version of this report online, Paul Robbins was incorrectly identified as a member of a water conservation task force.

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water conservation, drought, Resource Management Commission

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