As Texas enters the fourth year of what the state’s climatologist calls the worst drought in it’s history, many Austinites have taken notice and begun taking steps toward conservation.
Joe Bob Marlett, an elevator repairman from Lockhart identified the problem succinctly: “A city can’t live without water, and I don’t know where we’d get it from if we didn’t have any.”
This is exactly what the city’s recently created Emergency Task Force on Water Resources met to address on May 12: what are Austin's options for alternative water sources?
Austin Water spokesperson Jason Hill is working closely with the task force. He says all possibilities are on the table; the group is weighing the pros and cons of every solution, from transferring water during times of plenty and storing it in underground aquifers to adding a special biodegradable powder on the lake’s surface that would reduce evaporation by 15 to 20 percent. “There isn’t one option,” Hill says. “There’s not going to be one silver bullet.”
The City of Austin’s main water source comes from Lakes Buchanan and Travis, both Colorado River reservoirs. State Climatologist John Nielson Gammon says the persistent drought has restricted river flows to a record low.
“Even if [Austin’s river sources] were to get, say, an inch of rain everyday for five days, they would still be having the driest period on record for the length of time the drought has gone on. So we’ve got a long way to go to end the drought,” says Gammon. Lake levels are now below 40 percent, according to Austin Water.
That’s why the city has Stage Two drought restrictions in place. Many Austinites have already begun implementing their own conservation efforts. “Our customers here in the Austin area have done a fantastic job of responding [to the drought]," Hill says. “Overall water, our gallons per capita have dropped significantly over the last three, four years, during the time of this drought.”
The City of Austin isn’t the only municipality in Central Texas implementing conservation measures. In Lakeway, officials announced May 20 that they would be banning all building permits for new pools. Although KEYE-TV reports some residents are not happy with the decision, Lakeway communications coordinator Devin Monk says “We would ask them to weigh that use versus having water to drink, water to bathe, water for their families – just to make a decision that would not only be best for them, to live here, but also for their community.”
Could Austin follow suit? Jason Hill says it’s not out of the question. “Of course as the lakes get lower and the inflows continue to be at record lows, most outdoor water use is going to be restricted; that's the reality when you have water supply that continues to dwindle.”
If Austin does enter Stage 3 restrictions, the city’s plan would further restrict residential and commercial watering, as well as prohibit all luxury water uses such as car washing, splash pads, spas, and fountains.
“We have quit watering our lawn, and have removed the trees that were not native that used too much water,” says Jim Marsden, a life-long Texan. However, many younger Austinites say they were unaware of the situation facing the city. “There’s some brown looking grass around here at least,” says University of Texas student Abby Pernergast, when asked if she could think of any signs of drought in Austin.
For Joe Bob Marlett, it’s a matter of everyday choices. “What I try to do is turn off the water faucet while I’m brushing my teeth, take shorter showers, just general stuff like that.” As the drought continues – as is predicted – Austinites may find that such conservation is no longer a choice, but a city requirement.