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Water conservation task force debates AWU role

Monday, January 25, 2010 by Jacob Cottingham

The Citizens Water Conservation Implementation Task Force is closer to finalizing its recommendations to City Council, although vigorous debate continues over what metrics the Austin Water Utility will contribute to the report.


Last week, on a night when Save Our Springs Alliance Executive Director Bill Bunch was advocating the creation of a measurable, accountable quarterly conservation reporting standard, members of the task force debated the influence of quantifiable metrics provided by Austin Water Utility.


Task Force Chair Susan Butler told the group that AWU was going to be conducting an analysis of the task force’s “Table 1,” which lists “Quantifiable Strategies Prioritized for Analysis.”


Sarah (Baker) Faust, who serves as a representative of the Water and Wastewater Commission, questioned what would be in the analysis.


AWU Acting Division Manager Drema Gross said, “Staff is working on estimates of potential or expected water savings over some period of time – it may be … ten years. Then estimate the cost/benefit of savings.” She said their analysis would attempt to consider the costs of administrating and implementing each recommendation as well as the projected decrease in water use. The utility would consider how many full-time employees would be needed for the recommendations over 10 years and arrive at a cost per 1,000 gallons. There are 24 recommendations in Table 1.


Faust said, “Process-wise, I’m having a little bit of an issue with signing on to a report where what I participated in was putting together a list of recommended measures. The drafting subcommittee scored those measures, staff scored those measures, now staff is going to analyze those … for cost efficiency. The final product that I’m envisioning would give staff twice as much input as I have because I didn’t have estimates.” She concluded that such a scenario with cost-efficiency rankings created a scenario “heavily weighted for staff.”


Most of the Task Force seemed to support gathering the data. Butler said she was “concerned that without analysis someone would think this is a laundry list of recommendations to be introduced right away,” rather than a starting point of possible paths toward conservation. 


Vice chair Jennifer Walker said she “welcomes the analysis,” saying it “makes the report stronger.” But Walker also had some concerns. “I don’t want the 20 (measures) they analyze to be the ones that are automatically more favored, because we’re not prepared to say that,” she told In Fact Daily. “We need more information about all the strategies, and obviously AWU has a big part in choosing the strategies that will go forward.” Faust voiced concern that AWU’s analysis would be “a way of controlling the outcome.”


Task Force Member Norman Johns pointed out that staff was off by 11 percent on estimates concerning the most effective strategy for reducing lawn watering. “In that case, it was an unexpected surprise in a hurried-up time frame,” he cautioned. “However, the potential to be wrong about something is heightened.” Johns suggested moving forward with the analysis, perhaps as a companion document.


Butler revealed that Council members had been emailing her about the need for quantifiable metrics. The back and forth between members continued for some time as they tried to balance the perceptions and demands of various constituencies.


Task Force Member Margot Clarke said, “I see indications we’ll be lambasted because there aren’t numbers associated” with the report. Meanwhile, Johns opined that “without independence, we’ll get lambasted.” Others worried about the impact an analysis would have on the delivery timeline for the report. Gross said, “If we felt like we didn’t have the time to put a number to a particular item, we’d say that.”


Eventually Robin Gary, a representative of the Environmental Board, proposed putting the analysis at the end of the recommendations as part of the appendix. Although this seemed to gain some support, the Task Force declined to vote on how to incorporate the metrics, and AWU will go forward with their study. They will bring what numbers they are able to devise back to the next Task Force meeting on February 15.

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