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Water Commission hears bleak forecast for continued drought conditions

Monday, November 14, 2011 by Michael Kanin

As Central Texas continues to contend with what is trending toward the worst drought in its history, City of Austin officials will examine the possibility of changing portions of the city’s water use management ordinances. “We’re seeing lake level inflows that are beyond known space in terms of how low they are – they have really dropped off the map,” said Austin Water Utility Water Conservation Division manager Drema Gross.


“They’ve done some tree ring studies to try to estimate what drought conditions were persistent, and this looks now like it will may be the lowest…inflows to the lakes that we’ve seen since the 1500s,” she continued. “If those studies are accurate, we are on track for a pretty scary scenario.”


That news came as the city’s Water and Wastewater Commission heard a host of presentations that illustrated Gross’ point. These included a financial forecast that projects a significant reduction in revenue should the drought continue, and a preview of what continued low lake levels could mean for water use in the city.


This was all initially tempered by a taste of good news. As part of his financial presentation, the Austin Water Utility’s financial guru David Anders, told the commission that the utility had banked roughly $26 million more than it had anticipated for fiscal year 2011. Anders noted that the utility earned $16 million more in revenues than was estimated and spent $11 million less in expenditures. “We’re really in good shape this year,” he said.


However, utility director Greg Meszaros later noted that the extra revenue may not be enough to cover the shortfall that could come with longer, and potentially more severe water restrictions. “We’ve never had a full year where we’ve had mandatory one-day-a-week watering or less,” he said. “If the drought persists at the level it currently is—and that’s the forecast into the spring at least—then we’re heading into unknown territory in terms of the revenue.”


Meszaros estimated that revenue would come in at least 20 percent under budget for 2012. After some quick math, he projected a loss of $40-$50 million. However, both he and Anders suggested that this would be somewhat offset by the city’s new fixed water fee.


The City of Austin voluntarily enacted stage two water restrictions on Sept. 1. That action mandates once-a-week watering for city residents. It also brought consumption down by roughly 20 percent.


That figure—20 percent—is the amount that the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) could ask its firm water customers to cut back by, should that organization declare a drought worse than drought of record. Initial LCRA projections put that event—measured by a drop in highland lakes storage to below 600,000 acre feet of water—sometime in April. Recent rains may have somewhat extended that timetable, but Austin Water officials still see the declaration coming sometime in May.


Should that trend continue, anticipated LCRA restrictions may not initially be felt in the city, thanks to early conservation efforts by the utility. However, Meszaros suggested that Austinites could be asked to further curtail their water draw if the drought gets worse. “Twenty percent isn’t necessarily (the LCRA’s) end goal,” he said. “If the lakes continue to drop…they would implement 30 percent, 40 percent (cuts).”


The utility will ask the LCRA for credit for its conservation efforts. Should it be approved, that credit would be applied toward the mandatory cut backs that appear to be on their way.


Gross told the commission that they would aim to have code changes ready by April. These could include implementing some unaddressed suggestions from the 2006-2007 Water Conservation Task Force and a change in the way the city prosecutes water wasters, as well as protections for both Austin’s arbor life and its farming and business communities.


Gross predicts that public meetings will begin in December, and that the utility could go to commissions for approval of the changes as early as February. “We’re hoping to have this completed before we hit 600,000 acre feet,” she said before hedging a bit. “That is a very, very short timeline for anything to happen in this city.”

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