Water Conservation in Central Texas

Water Conservation

As we move forward into the 21st century two things are going to remain true: the population of the City of Austin and surrounding area is going to increase, the amount of water available will not. The Colorado River’s flow will not expand to cover the increased demand and the aquifers beneath us will not be sustainable unless rainfall patterns change and the extended drought ends. The damming of the Colorado to form the Highland Lakes was in response to the extended drought of 1950-57, however there are no plans in the works for any additional reservoirs.

“Currently, about 95 percent of Texas is in either a severe or exceptional drought status and the past year {2011} has been the worst one-year drought in the state’s history,” says John Nielsen-Gammon, State Climatologist at A&M University. He also puts forward the possibility the drought could extend into the conservative news as far as 2020.

Austin’s water supply challenges are becoming more evident as demonstrated by recent record heat and drought conditions. The emergence of the “Sometimes Islands” in Lake Travis are a reminder of the pressure our water supply system can suddenly come under when our average annual rainfall amounts drop considerably. (Austin gets about 34 inches of annual rainfall.) The good news is that Austin has secured long term water rights and contractual rights for roughly twice as much water as is currently being used – to water in the river that runs through the city. Austin’s adoption of its aggressive conservation goals comes from dedication to water conservation as a value and with long term sustainability in mind, and without the immediate financial or water supply pressures faced by places like California and western desert cities who have to pipe water from distant sources reliant upon historic rainfall amounts that have diminished over recent years.

It should also be noted that strong conservation efforts by Austin do not necessarily result in more water remaining in the Colorado River and the Highland Lakes. Under the current LCRA Water Management Plan, any water savings realized by the City of Austin is water available to be sold by LCRA to other customers. The biggest water user along the Colorado River is not the City of Austin, but downstream rice farmers who regularly use more than three times as much water annually as does the City of Austin (including water used by Austin Energy to generate power). In fact, during the drought, while Austin implemented Stage 2 restrictions, including limiting irrigation to one day per week, rice farmers made no cutbacks and actually exceeded their projected use in the Water Management Plan. The City of Austin used a total of around 139,000 acre feet of water, compared to the 450,000 used by rice farmers downstream.

Water Conservation: A Local History

The City of Austin’s first water use management ordinance was enacted in 1983. It allowed for the implementation of water restrictions in response to infrastructure constraints, but more as a crisis management tool than an actual water conservation strategy.

Since that time demand has increased as the population soared.

1990 – 466,000
2000 – 656,000
2010 – 790,000

Source Ryan Robinson, City Demographer, Dept of Planning, City Of Austin, March 2011

Between 1995 and 2009 water use per year has gone from 39,585 to 53,328 (in millions of gallons) Because of this changing demographic Austin has focused more on water conservation as a means to extend the available infrastructure capacity as well as reducing the city’s carbon footprint. To enhance ongoing conservation efforts, Austin’s City Council passed a resolution on August 24, 2006 that set a goal of reducing peak day water use by one percent per year for ten years. As part of that resolution, the City Council established a Water Conservation Task Force (WCTF) and charged it with drafting a policy document consisting of strategies and implementation plans for new water conservation initiatives that would allow Austin to meet its goal for reducing peak day use.

As part of the resulting actions in the 2007 charge, City Council established the Citizens Water Conservation Implementation Task Force (CWCITF), whose members included environmental advocates, development advocates, irrigators, and others with expertise and interest in water conservation, and tasked them with monitoring water conservation efforts in Austin. On August 6, 2009, the City Council adopted a resolution that directed the CWCITF to work with City staff and applicable Boards & Commissions to produce a report recommending additional water conservation measures to reduce water use beyond the 2007 WCTF recommendations. After this report was complete, on May 13, 2010 City Council charged the City Manager with evaluating the CWCITF’s recommendations and developing an action plan that would reduce average water use in Austin to 140 gallons per capita, per day (GPCD) or lower by 2020.

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