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Deep in drought, Austin adopts water conservation plans with promise of more to come

Numerous buildings are pictured under construction in the Rainey Street part of downtown on March 20, 2024, in Austin.
Michael Minasi
KUT News
Austin City Council approved a new water conservation plan on Thursday.

On Thursday, the Austin City Council unanimously approved new policies for long-term water conservation and drought response. But the vote came only after council members and water utility leadership confirmed that they would revisit the rules by the end of the year, potentially further tightening them.

That approval, with strings attached, came after a city water task force refused to throw its support behind the plans, saying they did not do enough to safeguard Austin’s water supply.

Under state law, the city has to update its drought contingency and conservation plans 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 new stages of drought emergency and lays out local restrictions on water use depending on what stage the city is in.

Austin Water began gathering public input on the plans last year, but delays beset its public rollout.

When the plans were finally brought to Austin’s Integrated Water Planning Community Task Force in mid-April, its members characterized the conservation goals as “meager” and suggested that Austin Water could do more to enforce its own water-saving rules.

The task force, also known as the Water Forward Task Force, is an advisory group made up of volunteers appointed by City Council members, many who are experts in water management, conservation and law.

While Austin Water argued that its new goals and strategies were more realistic and achievable than past policy, the task force’s negative assessment was repeated by some public speakers ahead of Thursday's City Council vote.

“Y’all are sleepwalking through a crisis," said Bill Bunch, head of the Save Our Springs Alliance, referring to the ongoing drought that has left city reservoirs in the Highland Lakes standing around 43% full. “You need to send this [plan] back to the task force.”

But Austin Water officials said approving the new plans Thursday was important.

The city enforces water management policy in conjunction with the Lower Colorado River Authority which manages water in the Highland Lakes. For that reason, Austin Water should have new plans on the books in the likely event that drought worsens this summer.

“It’s important that we adopt these plans now so that in the next couple of months we will be able to go to stage three [drought restrictions] when the LCRA goes to stage three,” Austin Water Director Shay Ralls Roalson told City Council.

Ultimately, the City Council approved both of the plans as proposed by Austin Water, but publicly affirmed that the plans would be revised as part of a separate water planning process called Water Forward.

That “Water Forward” plan, also updated every five years, aims at securing reliable water supply over the next 100 years. It is devised in consultation with the same water task force that refused to support the current conservation proposals.

“We have a series of presentations and conservations planned with our water forward task force,” Ralls Roalson said. “As those discussions yield additional changes we can make to the plans we will incorporate them.”

Debate over conservation and drought response has taken on an added urgency as Austin reservoirs sit less than half-full ahead of what will likely be yet another hot dry summer.

Over the long term, climatologists say that Central Texas will continue to experience longer and more devastating droughts as global warming continues.

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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