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Water utility plans changes to conservation rebates and incentives

Monday, May 17, 2010 by Michael Kanin

The Austin Water Utility is planning major changes to the incentives and rebates in its conservation program, including the end of the city’s popular toilet rebate program. The updates are scheduled to go into effect on July 1.


Program changes include a dramatic increase in the total amount water customers can receive in rainwater harvesting rebates, a new landscape conversion incentive, and a “WaterWise Certification program” for hotels and car washes would also be offered. The city’s free toilet program would go untouched.


The utility’s acting Division Manager for Conservation, Drema Gross, told the Water and Wastewater Commission last week that the changes were prompted by the work of the Citizens Water Conservation Implementation Task Force. “One of the recommendations that was presented to Council as part of (their) report was for us to maintain flexibility in our rebate programs (and) to make sure that they meet market conditions (so) that we’re serving a broad spectrum of our customers,” she said.


“These changes…are in response to those directives and goals, and they mesh very well with what staff has been working on for a while.”


The reconfiguration of the rainwater harvesting system rebate will include the combination of what are currently two separate programs: a lower-scale fund that takes care of rain barrel reimbursements and one designed for larger projects. “We want to simplify that, and take it to a per gallon rebate based on the capacity,” Gross said.


For utility customers, that translates to a $0.50 per gallon rebate for non-pressurized systems and a $1 per gallon rebate for the pressurized version. Those figures would be capped at lifetime $5,000 limit, and will be dependent on the fact that ratepayers will have to cover 50 percent of the total costs.


“I don’t think that very many residential customers will reach this $5,000 cap…but I do expect to see a lot of multi-family and commercial customers with very visible systems,” Gross told commissioners. “Seeing those around Austin and using them in demonstration projects and highly visible places will allow us to start the culture change; people thinking about where their water really comes from and how it’s used.”


The “Landscape Conversion Incentive” would be a pilot program for residential customers. Under it, the utility would offer users $100 to $150 in return for their converting turf to native landscaping or a non-irrigated area. The minimum amount of land that ratepayers would have to transform would be 500 square feet. The utility would pay $20 to $30 for every 100 square feet above that number.


In addition to ending the toilet rebate program, the utility expects to cut back on the WashWise rebates that it currently offers for residential clothes washers. If left as-is, customers could expect to see that figure reduced from $100 to $50. Gross said the utility believes that a significant portion of the rebates it pays out as part of this program goes to customers who would be buying new washers with or without that incentive.


With its proposed WaterWise Certification Program, the utility hopes to provide measures of recognition and a web listing in exchange for “efficiency measures.” For hotels, the program would make such demands as linen re-use options and “water-conserving toilets.” Car washes could expect to see periodic inspections that could single-out such facilities that could be used during watering restrictions.


Gross told In Fact Daily that the changes are a “program management decision,” a fact that places them in the “purview of the utility”—which means they can be implemented unilaterally. However, she said that her team was making an outreach effort. “We are making efforts to…inform the Citizens Task Force (and) we get feedback from them,” she said. “We met with (some of) them last week.”


“We’ll see (the Resource Management Commission) next week, but I did meet with the chair and another member to get their feedback and input,” she added. “We don’t want to make these changes in a vacuum; we want to get some input.”

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