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Council approves measures to drive city’s push for water conservation

Friday, May 14, 2010 by Jacob Cottingham

Council members pressed forward Thursday with two agenda items designed to ultimately lower the amount of water used throughout the city. Council unanimously approved extending a marketing contract with EnviroMedia for another $175,000 and approved the recommendations from the Water Conservation Task Force, including the goal of reaching 140 gallons of water per person per day by 2020.


A presentation from EnviroMedia was the result of a previously mandated study ordered by Council to determine how the city should focus its conservation efforts, highlighted the disconnect many citizens have with the water utility. The marketing firm surveyed 618 people in early March to come up with its conclusions.


Kevin Tuerff, president of EnviroMedia told Council members, “The door is wide open for Austin Water to step up and lead the way.” However, there were substantial obstacles to overcome. He said 19 percent of Austinites had never heard of the water utility compared to only two percent that had never heard of Austin Energy. He also said AWU’s conservation programs were not typically associated with the utility but said, “this is a solvable problem, through education.”

Tuerff pointed out that 61 percent of respondents thought AWU “should do more to promote water conservation.”


Tuerff said research EnviroMedia had conducted with the Texas Water Development Board revealed that when people know the source of their water they are twice as likely to conserve it. He also revealed that 53 percent of Austinites thought that their water came from the Edwards Aquifer and only four percent knew the water came from the Colorado River. Primarily, Tuerff said, the utility did not have “one clear, consistent message or vision when it comes to conservation.”


Bill Bunch, Executive Director of SOS – an organization devoted to increasing awareness of human impact on the Edwards Aquifer – was not pleased about the developments. Bunch was critical of being left out of the loop on the report, complained that it should first go before the Resource Management Commission and said that AWU staff still didn’t seem to be on the same page as Council in regard to conservation. He also derided the idea of “branding” AWU and offered himself up as an example of the harm marketing could have, saying he was fooled by BP’s 2001 “Beyond Petroleum” campaign which he said gave him “all kinds of warm fuzzies for a couple of years…” Bunch said the city would be better off “creating a conservation culture…and a diversity of messages and engagement.”


Council Member Randi Shade agreed that there were some issues with AWU, saying, “That is something I am trying to change.” The utility, she said, “does some things right, but when it comes to communicating with stakeholders there’s a lot to be done. “


Council Member Laura Morrison wanted to make clear that the contract still will go before the RMC, and requested staff to go before the commission and ask how often they wanted to receive an update, calling their input “critical… they are more than just another stakeholder.” Mayor Lee Leffingwell agreed, saying that they should “routinely” consult the RMC. Council then voted unanimously for the revised contract, which brought the total estimated amount to $224,500.


Council also voted to approve the Water Conservation Task Force recommendations recently finalized in a report. Council Member Chris Riley said specifically they endorsed the goal of 140 gallons of water per person per day by 2020 which, “represents a shift in our focus away from peak daily usage to recognize there are 365 days in the year and they all matter.”


Leffingwell, one of the other co-sponsors, said there “was a lot of flexibility” in the goal to allow for changes in population and industry. He said, “I think we’re going to need to do that. I have been told by several people in the water utility that achieving this goal will require dramatic lifestyle changes,” and asked that when staff came back with a quantitative review on the more than 100 recommendations that they say what exactly would be necessary to achieve that goal and make an assessment of whether it was possible.

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