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Austin Water sends conservation plan to City Council without support of key task force

Buildings across the downtown skyline reflect cloudy, grey skies on March 20, 2024, in Austin.
Michael Minasi
KUT News
Austin Water is set to send a new water conservation goals to City Council on Thursday.

Proposals to overhaul Austin’s drought response rules and update long-term conservation goals will go to the Austin City Council for a vote this week without the support of a city advisory panel charged with vetting water policy.

When Austin Water released its new plans earlier this month, members of the city’s Integrated Water Resource Planning Community Task Force were not enthusiastic.

The utility’s goals were not ambitious enough for many on the city advisory panel. Task force members also complained at a mid-April meeting that they were only given hours to read the proposals before being asked to support them.

Austin Water held a second specially-called meeting on April 25. Utility representatives hoped to smooth things over with the task force ahead of the planned council vote.

But the utility presented the same conservation plans at the meeting. And the task force gave the same response.

“It’s not robust at all, it’s not challenging at all,” said task force member Bill Moriarty.

Moriarity’s words seemed to reflect the opinion of many task force members, none of whom offered a motion to support the proposals.

While the plans failed to gain support, Austin Water staff did offer further rationale for their new conservation goals.

These goals are less ambitious than those from 2019

The proposed drought response and water conservation plans set rules for how the city manages its limited water supply that is stored in Highland Lakes reservoirs. Under state law, the plans need to 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 drought emergency and lays out restrictions on water use depending on what stage the city is in.

One major complaint of many on the task force was that Austin Water's new water conservation goals are less ambitious than the goals proposed during the update five years ago.

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

But under the last iteration of the conservation plan, approved in 2019, the utility had hoped to achieve a total daily water use of 119 gallons.

“We’re going backwards,” said Moriarty.

Austin Water believes the new plan is achievable with drought conditions

Austin failed to reach its earlier conservation goals, and officials at Austin Water suggested that the new goals reflect a more realistic vision of what the city might be able to conserve over the next five years.

Austin Water Director Shay Ralls Roalson said putting unrealistic conversation goals into city water planning could threaten Austin’s long-term water security.

“It’s really important that our goals are both ambitious and achievable so that we meet both short-term and long-term goals for water supply,” she told KUT.

Underlying much of the disagreement between task force members and utility representatives was the question of whether Austin Water has done enough to increase conservation.

Austin Water officials suggested that previous conservation goals were harder to attain given the recent hot dry summers.

Task force members said failure to meet those goals meant the city should be doing more.

“We can't keep on this trajectory,” said task force chair Jennifer Walker. “We’ve got a lot of hot dry summers ahead of us.”

Task force members suggested mandating that big industrial and commercial water customers conserve or reuse more water, and creating more penalties for those who waste water rather than rely primarily on voluntary compliance. They also suggested increasing the budget for city outreach when it comes to water conservation.

“A casual goal we could set is that everybody knows their [lawn] watering day like they know their trash [pickup] day,” said task force member Sarah Faust.

Austin has been under Stage 2 drought restrictions since August 2023 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.

Climatologists forecast that Central Texas will continue to experience longer and more devastating droughts as global warming continues, a reality that both task force members and Austin Water officials say makes conservation and drought planning all the more crucial.

Austin Water says it still plans to bring its new proposals to City Council for a vote this Thursday.

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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