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Task force presents water conservation draft report

Tuesday, March 9, 2010 by Mark Richardson

After more than six months of deliberations, the task force charged with developing a long-term water conservation plan for Austin has begun circulating a draft report to the city’s boards and commissions, notable for both what is does and does not recommend.

The Citizens Water Conservation Implementation Task Force previewed its report, Water Conservation 2020: Strategic Recommendations, to members of the Environmental Board last week. The task force was charged by City Council last August with recommending conservation measures that go beyond those adopted in 2007.

Among its major recommendations, the report emphasizes that the city needs to develop:

  • a major investment in water supply awareness and water conservation literacy among its water users;
  • a certain, long-term financial investment in water conservation;
  • a rate structure that reflects the true cost of water but that assures that all citizens can afford basic water needs;
  • incentives for everyone — large users, industries, residents, and businesses — to reduce water use; and
  • conservation measures that make good business sense.

“We really want Austin to be the preeminent leader in water conservation across the nation; who knows? Maybe globally.” Susan Butler, chair of the task force, told the Environmental Board. “Our group took more of a strategic outlook towards water conservation. … We wanted to look forward 10 years, 20 years as we talked about ‘Who do we want to be?’ when it comes to water conservation.”

On Monday the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation released their joint report on statewide water conservation, placing Austin among the leaders in the state. Their recommendations are very similar to those of the Water Conservation Task Force. The Sierra Club and NWF recommend a water pricing structure, which they score Austin as “strong” on. Other recommendations for cities across the state include: water savings goals, toilet replacement, conservation funding, and outdoor watering, on which Austin also earned a score of “strong.”

Local Sierra Club leader Jennifer Walker, a member of the task force, said, “Austin ‘s programs scored mostly ‘strong’ in our report. Austin has a lot of programs that they have started in the last couple years, and it has a dedicated [conservation] budget and a toilet replacement program and an aggressive pricing structure they just put in place … the issue we found with Austin is its per-capita goal ranked ‘moderate.’ Austin still has fairly high water use for a city with so many programs in place, and their 10 year goal could be a lot stronger, we think, with all their programs in place.”

Reaction from the Environmental Board was mostly positive, but there were points in the report that drew questions and even some criticism. Rumors circulated around City Hall last week that Mayor Lee Leffingwell was not pleased with the task force report and that the Council was looking for more specific items to act upon. But when questioned about the report, all Leffingwell would say was, “I was expecting something else.”

One particular item was about setting a goal of reducing city water use to 140 gallons per capita per day by 2020. Board Member Mary Ann Neely, who was a consultant to the task force, said there were questions about whether the 140 gpc goal was both valid and reasonable.

“People have come to me an asked, ‘If San Antonio can do 140 gallons per capita, why can’t Austin ?’” Neely said. “But the question always comes up, are the comparisons always apples-to-apples? I know we have industry (high tech) that is not similar to San Antonio and I don’t want us to be unfairly compared.”

Bill Bunch with the Save Our Springs Alliance said his group was glad that the city had endorsed 140 gpc as a goal but that he believed that Austin could do better.

“They stated that we should be the best, but San Antonio is already at 136, with a goal to be at 116 by 2017,” he said. “They are sophisticated in their approach; they have goals that are for wet weather, dry weather, and normal weather, so you don’t argue every year … You can measure whether you hit your targets no matter what kind of year it was.”

Board Member Bob Anderson asked Daryl Slusher, assistant director for environmental affairs at AWU, if there would eventually be one person who becomes the “go-to” person at AWU for water conservation.

“One of the most important things I learned in my visit to SAWS (the San Antonio Water System) was that when there was one person who answered for the program, it runs better,” Anderson said. “Who will be the face of this program?”

Slusher said that would fall to him. “The water conservation division reports to me,” he said. “But what I think we’re trying to do is to have that consciousness throughout the water utility.”  

An item included in the charge from Council that was not in the task force’s report was the development of a 10-year strategic plan for water conservation. Butler said that group decided that task should be left up to the Austin Water Utility.

The task force also recommended that the city further study the following areas:

  • outdoor water use for existing customers
  • outdoor water use for new construction
  • industrial, commercial, and institutional water use
  • indoor residential water use
  • infrastructure and facility management
  • reclaimed water use

The Environmental Board voted 7-0 to endorse the report. It will go before a public meeting at 6pm tonight at St. David’s Episcopal Church, 301 East 8th St. A copy of the report is available on the city’s Web site .

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