The Austin Chronicle

Then There's This: Water Talk Bubbles Forth

Exploring the future of Austin's water supply

By Amy Smith, May 16, 2014, News

The old saw – when in doubt, form a committee – is a treasured rule of thumb here in Austin, as in most other growing cities. And if there's one thing about which there is increasing uncertainty at this juncture, it's water. Where will it come from? How much will we need? No, try that one again. How much will we really need?

The only thing we know for sure is that the drought is killing us. Enter the newly formed Water Resource Planning Task Force, which the City Council has created in response to several factors: climate change, the looming prospect of rural-vs.-urban water wars breaking out across Texas as municipalities seek to fortify supplies, and concerns formally voiced by environmental groups (namely Austin Sierra Club, Clean Water Action. Environ­ment Texas, and Save Our Springs Alliance) about a lack of inclusiveness in Austin Water Utility's "integrated water resource planning."

And finally, as the Council resolution sponsored by Kathie Tovo, Chris Riley, and Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole makes clear, the task force is needed to examine whether the utility's exploratory water-shopping trips outside of Austin could have unintended consequences, such as "substantial rate increases" to customers.

The 11-member task force is charged with evaluating and coming up with recommendations on future water planning as well as alternative water sources, such as conservation, reuse, "regional transmission systems and partnerships," groundwater, and aquifer storage. They're also expected to craft a set of recommendations that are consistent with the long-term Imagine Austin plan.

Think Regionally

To date, the panel has held two long meetings; task force members – all of them are thankfully well-versed in water policy and sustainability issues – are trying to pack a lot into each meeting within a narrow window of time. They're expected to deliver their findings and recommendations to Council no later than June 20. The panel also has impressive leadership; its chair and co-chair, respectively, are Sharlene Leurig, who oversees the water program division of national nonprofit Ceres, and Tom Mason, a former general manager of the Lower Colorado River Authority.

It's unusual for a citizens' task force to draw widespread attention, but we're talking water, so it's not surprising that people from outside of Austin are following these meetings closely, and they've urged the task force to pursue its mission with a regional consciousness. At the committee's orientation meeting on May 5, about 10 people showed up to speak during Citizens Communication, including several from Bastrop and Lee counties, where folks are battling to protect and preserve groundwater from the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer, currently a hot commodity in some circles.

Not From Heaven

Blanco County resident John Watson, a retired attorney, shared some of his own concerns as a property owner. His home in Blanco sits on the banks of the Pedernales River – a major contributor to Lake Travis, which in spite of this week's downpours remains 45 feet below its May average, according to the LCRA. The Pedernales, Watson told the task force, had dried up five days earlier. He said he also owns property in Bastrop County, next door to the Lost Pines Boy Scout Camp, which happens to be negotiating to sell its water rights to the LCRA. "The LCRA will not tell me what they want to do with that water," he lamented, adding that he fears such a water sale might also drain the water beneath his property.

Watson then digressed a bit to address a lack of foresight going into Central Texas' population boom. "Population is driven by policy – it's not a thing that descends out of heaven onto us." (That of course runs counter to the mantra of key policymakers and the local Chamber – that growth is happening whether we want it or not, so we need to get these apartments and subdivisions built fast, cheap, and ugly. But that's an altogether different digression.) "We have an opportunity to guide the population growth, and you are key to doing that," Watson said. "I urge you to consider those of us who live and own property outside the city. Please consider the sources from which your water could come," he said, referring to utility officials' discussions of potential groundwater purchases from the Carrizo-Wilcox, "because the people who live [there] would be impacted."

The task force's next meeting is May 19.

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