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City Council briefed on water conservation program

Friday, July 24, 2009 by Michael Mmay

Austin’s water conservation programs are saving more water then was initially expected, Council members learned at a briefing at yesterday’s meeting. The city projected saving 1.18 million gallons per day by now, but is actually saving between 6.4 and 10.4 million gallons a day.


Austin Water Utility Director Greg Meszaros gave an update on the state of Austin’s current water conservation program, which was adopted by Council in 2007. The city is currently spending around $3.7 million on the programs, which range from reclaiming waste water to doing public education.


Meszaros said that the bulk of the savings come from a five separate programs: enhanced water use management; reclaimed used water; putting water rates on a graduated rate increase schedule; reducing water loss through plugging leaks; and retrofitting toilets. “The goal is to reduce demand by one percent per year, or around 25 million gallons a day,” said Meszaros.


The city has adopted permanent watering restrictions for commercial and multifamily buildings, and seasonal restrictions for residential homes. This program alone is now saving more than 6 million gallons per day. “This program is resulting in higher than expected results,” said Meszaros. “It probably will taper off at some point.”


The city has also built lines that allow reuse of treated waste water, which will eventually include more than 130 miles of pipe, and 5.5 billion gallons of annual water use. “We’re using this treated water for irrigation and cooling towers,” said Meszaros.


Austin is now charging their high-use customers significantly more for water then moderate users. Meszaros provided a chart showing Austin’s rates compared to other Texas cities. Austin charges residents who use 10,000 gallons a month around the same as other cities, $24.84. But when residents use 50,000 gallons a month, their bill skyrockets to $346.09.


Meszaros said the program should expand to help low-income Austinites with water-saving repairs, which eases the burden on water and reduces bills.  He also recommended creating a program that would help landlords install low-flow toilets in multifamily properties.  He also suggested changing plumbing codes to make it easier for residents to use gray water irrigation, and installing automated meter reading technology, which would give residents real-time updates on their water use.


Although several Council Members pushed hard for additional water conservation measures, one conservation item on the Council agenda was postponed indefinitely after Council Member Sheryl Cole raised questions about why the $3.1 million contract to install low-flow toilets in apartments had not gone before the Resource Management Commission. Council Members Laura Morrison and Mike Martinez added their objections to the idea of giving out a contract with no local or minority subcontracting opportunities. 


Austin Water Utility Director Greg Meszaros said this is a new program that is modeled after one that San Antonio does. The company recommended for the contract – Niagara Conservation Corporation – would do turnkey installations, Meszaros said, to go to an apartment complex, knock on the door and offer to install the toilets for free. He said the utility wanted to keep that as an integrated service for efficiency’s sake. Meszaros said the city contacted 45 vendors to find the right one to install the free toilets. The residential program offers free toilets to homeowners but they must pay plumbers to have the toilets installed.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who chaired the original Water Conservation Task Force, said that the program would save one percent a year, “but that’s a 10 percent savings over 10 years.” He also articulated one of the challenges facing Austin.


“We have 3,600 miles of pipe, and around 600 miles of it is 50-year old cast iron pipes that can fail and send a geyser shooting in the air. We need to determine where pipes are about to fail,” said Leffingwell.


Council Member Laura Morrison pointed out that the utility faces a bit of a paradox. It relies on selling water to survive, so if the program is too successful the utility could run out of money.


Meszaros responded that it was a concern. “We might need to carry a bit more cash in reserves, for rainy years, and also start shifting some fees to the base rate that every customer pays,” said Meszaros. But he also pointed out that the program saves the utility money as well. “Raw water is expensive. We paid $100 million to LCRA for our water, and conservation can help us avoid triggering higher rates.”


Council Member Chris Riley asked about enforcement. “I’ve heard concerns from people who are abiding by the restrictions,” he said. “They see their neighbors watering on days they’re not supposed to, or letting the water run into the street. Have you increased enforcement?”


Meszaros said they’ve instituted a program where residents can call 3-1-1 if they see someone wasting water. “We’ve also changed our schedules so that staff can work late hours and weekends, when people are watering lawns,” he said. “We issue warnings, and find that most people comply before a citation is necessary.”

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