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As drought grinds on, task force members slam 'meager' Austin Water conservation plan

A sprinkler sitting on brown grass.
Deborah Cannon
KUT News
Austin has been under Stage 2 drought restrictions since August.

Members of a City of Austin water planning task force will hold a specially called meeting Thursday to address concerns that new Austin Water conservation plans are “not ambitious."

The utility's proposed conservation and drought response policies came under criticism when they were released April 15, just weeks before Austin Water hoped to get the plans approved by City Council.

The plans set rules for how the city manages its limited water supply stored in Highland Lakes reservoirs. Under state law, the plans must be updated every five years.

The conservation plan sets year-round goals and policies for reducing water consumption and waste, regardless of weather conditions. The drought contingency plan goes into effect in times of drought. It sets “triggers” for when Austin declares different stages of emergency and lays out restrictions to water use depending on what stage the city is in.

Both proposals came under scrutiny at the April 15 meeting of Austin’s Integrated Water Resource Planning Community Task Force. The task force is made up of a group of volunteers, many with expertise on water issues, appointed by City Council to advise on water policy.

Goals are 'not ambitious'

Austin residents have used, on average, 64 gallons of water a day per person over the last five years. The utility’s new conservation plan aims to reduce that average water use by 2 gallons to 62 gallons daily, per person, by 2029.

Austin Water

Factoring in industrial and business uses, Austinites average 127 gallons of water use per capita daily. Under the new conservation plan, Austin Water aims to reduce that by 4 gallons daily to 123 gallons per day by 2029.

Beyond residential and business uses, Austin loses an estimated 21 gallons of water per person daily through leaks in water treatment and distribution systems. The new plan has a goal of reducing those leaks to 19 gallons per person daily by 2029.

Utility officials say these water savings can be achieved through increasing water reuse, plugging more leaks in the system and encouraging conservation year-round through education and incentive programs.

But the conservation goals quickly came under fire from task force members who pointed out that Austin Water’s new plan sets less ambitious conservation goals than it currently has on the books.

Under the last iteration of the conservation plan, approved in 2019, the utility had hoped to achieve residential water use of 61 gallons daily and total water use of 119 gallons daily.

“I think these goals are very meager,” said task force member Bill Moriarty, an engineer and former manager of Austin’s Clean Water Program.

“They’re not ambitious,” said Sara Faust, a water and environmental law attorney and task force member.

Austin Water officials characterized the goals as more realistic than previous ones.

“Those goals ... are both aspirational, but ones that we feel that we can achieve,” said Kevin Kluge, water conservation manager for Austin Water.

Further concerns

Beyond expressing consternation over the conservation goals, some task force members criticized the way the utility rolled out the plans and suggested it should ask industrial or commercial users to conserve more.

For example, Tesla has become one of Austin’s top 5 retail water customers since coming to town several years ago, consuming about 3.3 billion gallons of water in 2023, according to the plan.

Tesla is “using 0.7% of our entire water sales,” task force member Paul DiFiore said. “I feel like that needs to be a part of this conversation.”

The new plans were initially supposed to be released in February or March, but were only made public the morning of the April 15 task force hearing.

Austin Water officials said the delay was due to city “chain of command” issues and its need to wait for the Lower Colorado River Authority, from which Austin gets its water supply, to formalize its own conservation and drought policies.

The utility would now like the plan to move quickly to City Council for approval. But task force members said the timing does not provide the public with the opportunity to review the plans.

Traditionally, new city policies take time to be heard by various city boards and commissions appointed by City Council.

While support from these groups is not required for council to approve the policies, the process is supposed to ensure the proposals have been vetted by the public before they arrive at council for a vote.

“I think the roll out of this thing has been weird,” Moriarty said.

The new plans fared better later in the week at a meeting of the city's Water and Wastewater Commission, which supported moving them to council for a final vote.

Drought likely to intensify

Austin has been under Stage 2 drought restrictions since August and is likely to slide deeper into Stage 3 restrictions by July in the absence of major rainfall feeding the Highland Lake reservoirs, which are currently 42% full.

Under the new proposal, a move from Stage 2 to Stage 3 drought restrictions would mean athletic fields would need to apply for permission to irrigate, people would need to further limit the time they spend watering their lawns, and watering code violators would be subject to an immediate fine, not simply a warning from the city.

Austin Water

Austin has lately struggled to improve water conservation, with water consumption continuing unabated after the city announced new restrictions last summer.

These facts, along with the region’s explosive population and business growth, have given new urgency to discussions over water conservation and drought response.

“This is one of the biggest issues facing our community right now. We're in the middle of this severe drought,” Faust told Austin Water officials. “To rush [the plans to council] like this with no valid input and discussion is really hard to understand.”

But Austin Water says it is operating under administrative pressures.

The utility says it needs to finalize its new plans before City Council members go on summer break in June. Utility officials hope to get approval for the plans May 2.

Before that vote, Austin Water has agreed to meet one more time with task force members — Thursday from 1 to 3 p.m. at the City’s Permitting and Development Center.

An earlier version of this story quoted task force member Paul DiFiore saying Tesla uses "7%" of Austin's water sales. DiFiore says he misspoke, by his calculations the company uses "0.7%" of Austin's water sales.

Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
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