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Questions arise over effectiveness of Stage 2 drought plan

Friday, August 21, 2009 by Jacob Cottingham

Austin Water Utility Director Greg Meszaros said Thursday the utility would eventually have 15-20 employees working on citation-related activities related to the enhanced water conservation.


But there will only be 10 to 12 water cops ready to start work on Monday giving tickets to water wasters and people who missed the news that they can only water on certain days and at certain times. Other temporary employees will be hired in coming weeks to assist in the effort, which has been triggered by severe drought and the ever-falling levels of the Highland Lakes.


Meszaros was updating the City Council on Austin’s Stage 2 Drought Plan. The city said last week that it would go to the more stringent controls as the Lower Colorado River Authority announced that Lakes Travis and Buchanan had dropped to 900,000 acre-feet, or 44 percent of capacity.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council Member Bill Spelman were not convinced of the effectiveness of the plan. The Council approved the plan in April.


“If we are going to have people doing this proactive patrolling, they really won’t be able to cover the entire city,” Spelman said. “Their time might be better used if they were responding to complaints or talking to neighborhood associations or other interest groups… or find some other means of increasing public education and awareness.” He suggested utilizing Austin Police Department patrol officers to call in suspected violations.


City Manager Marc Ott promised to talk with Chief Art Acevedo about such a scenario but cautioned that resources were already spread thin.


For his part, Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza told Council he wanted to “make sure it’s clear this is going to be somewhat disruptive. It’s not going to be pleasant.; we’re in a very difficult water rationing environment (and) beginning Monday we’re all going to be getting phone calls.”


Leffingwell had a few critical comments regarding AWU’s plan as well, complaining that the rules were too complicated.


He was concerned about the intricate nature of the watering schedule combined with the $500 tickets for violations. “Although I support it, this program is very complicated. Hose and sprinkler and hand and sprinkler… if we’re not issuing warnings for this at all, that could be problematic. I’m not sure how many people understand the difference between a hose and sprinkler and an irrigation system,” he said.


Meszaros agreed and acknowledged the utility had been getting a lot of questions about the topic. He also said that citations would take into consideration such “nuances” and look more toward the spirit of the law rather than punishing innocent mistakes.


The Mayor had another suggestion for water conservation efforts, “if I were designing the water schedule the automatic systems would have been for the weekdays, when people are not home. And they could do limited hand watering on the weekend.” Unfortunately, Garza said, changing the rules would require a lengthy revision process fraught with more procedural hurdles. 


The Stage II restrictions limit watering by residential users along a somewhat complicated schedule, but generally scale back watering to once a week. For those with commercial or multi-unit residences ending in odd numbers, Tuesday is the day to water. Even numbers have Friday. Single family units with odd numbers are restricted to Saturday watering, while even single-family units can water on Sunday. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday, watering is forbidden.


Once citizens have memorized the particular day on which they can water, they need to tackle the appropriate time. Residents with automatic watering systems can do so between midnight and 10am. Folks using a hose and sprinkler system can go from 7pm to 10 am while green thumbs with time to spare can water by hand during the day. Additionally, golf courses and aesthetic water features will be severely curtailed – even restaurants are no longer allowed to serve complimentary glasses of water without the customer asking for it first. Those using raw water—except the city—are free of such constraints.


Leffingwell took issue with that part of the plan also, telling Meszaros he was “not following the logic in allowing exclusion for raw water users.” Leffingwell pointed out “If your objective is to reduce the drawdown on the storage lakes, the effect is the same whether you’re pulling raw water out of the system or going through a treatment plant. It’s kind of illogical and defeats the purpose.” Meszaros said city code dictated such an exemption. “Maybe we should look at changing that code or changing that policy,” Leffingwell responded.


For details on the plan, go to:

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