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Long-term drought would have severe and wide-ranging effects on city

Wednesday, October 19, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

The state’s current drought could have long-lasting and far-reaching effects on Austin’s environment and economy, not to mention nearby agricultural production, if it continues for much longer. At the City Council work session yesterday, Austin Water Utility Director Greg Meszaros presented a grim portrait of current water conditions and the outlines of a plan to enhance city water restrictions if things get worse.


According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 73 percent of Texas is in the highest level exceptional drought, with some climatologists saying we might be in for the kind of long-term dry spell not seen since the 1940s and 50s. The area is experiencing some of the lowest water inflow in recorded history, and the Highland Lakes, the main source of water in the region, are 32 percent full, at 772,000 acre-feet. When lakes Travis and Buchanan dropped to 900,000 acre-feet in August, the city responded by moving to Stage 2 water restrictions, which call for one-day-a-week watering limits.


According to Meszaros, if things continue as they are, the lakes will most likely drop to 600,000 acre-feet in the spring, which could trigger Stage 3 restrictions, something the city has never done before. The problem is that Stage 3 restrictions were designed for short-term problems, “like a pumping problem or some kind of delivery problem,” Meszaros said. “We want to start a code revision process to revise short-term plans …. to deal with long-term chronic conditions.”


That would most likely suit Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who told his colleagues before Meszaros’ presentation (most of which he had to miss so he could attend to other city business) that the current Stage 3 restrictions aren’t “going to be adequate for what we may be facing in the time ahead” and, at the same time, could have “profound” effects on the city.


“I don’t think Stage 3 fits this situation,” said Leffingwell. “So I’m going to urge in the strongest possible terms that a new stage — call it Stage 2A or whatever terminology you want to use — be designed specifically for a long-range severe drought situation. Because here, we are going to be facing – for the first time — mandatory water restrictions from LCRA (the Lower Colorado River Authority). Our current Stage three calls for no outdoor watering of any kind … and I think that’s going to be, frankly, disastrous for the City of Austin if we lose our vegetation and trees and so forth. So we’ve got to find a different way to deal with a mandatory 20 percent reduction that the LCRA is likely to call for.”


Leffingwell also argued that a 20 percent reduction in water would leave the Fayette Power Project inadequately supported, meaning the plant would have to curtail the production of electricity, thereby driving up Austin Energy rates dramatically.


According to Austin Water Utility Conservation Manager Drema Gross the city’s problems wouldn’t stop at water and electricity. Stage 3 restrictions, in addition to dealing a potentially fatal blow to power-washing and car-washing businesses, would severely hinder new-home construction.


“During Stage 3, the installation of new landscaping is not allowed under current code,” Gross said. “For a single-family homebuilder, what that means is they could be in violation of a homebuilder’s contract that requires certain landscaping. They would also have some difficulty getting financing and closing a sale because there are no comparable homes to assess the value of a home that does not have landscaping.”


Asked by Council Member Kathie Tovo if the city could help homebuilders restructure their contracts so that landscaping wouldn’t be a component during Stage 3 restrictions, Greg Guernsey, director of the city’s Planning and Development Review Department, said any development, regardless of contracts, would be forced to comply with city landscaping regulations.


“We do have a requirement for the construction of residential homes that they have some trees planted,” said Guernsey. “When we have construction of commercial buildings, we have restrictions for landscaping. There are landscaping requirements for just about every type of development we have in the city.”


In addition to helping develop a water-management plan with other users, which the LCRA is scheduled to consider this week, Meszaros said he and his staff have been looking at revising the way the city punishes water restriction violations. Currently those restrictions are misdemeanors that require hours of court time and staff work. He said making those violations administrative rather than criminal would be a better, less cumbersome, way to enforce the rules.


“Given that we’re probably going to be in a drought for a long period of time, and want people to comply, we’re likely to do more warning and enforcement actions in the future,” Meszaros said. “We’d like to make that more of an administrative fine, where it doesn’t require people to go to court and have a misdemeanor on their record if they didn’t follow the watering schedule.”

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