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Austin Water Utility to propose changes to water code restrictions

Friday, March 30, 2012 by Michael Kanin

The Austin Water Utility will pitch a host of changes to the water use management section of the City of Austin’s water code. Should they be approved, the adjustments would bring more flexibility to the most restrictive watering rules while encouraging more widespread conservation. Included in the proposed restrictions is a call to make permanent city restrictions on twice-a-week watering.


The utility’s Water Conservation Division Manager Drema Gross told In Fact Daily that the changes were in response to community feedback. “What we heard from the public is that they would like us to do a little more” to conserve year-round and before a drought, she said.


Gross aims to have the rules changes before the Austin City Council in time for its May 24 meeting. She adds that the utility will visit city boards and commissions before bringing the new code language to Council.


As part of the proposed changes, the utility will look to adjust its drought response schedule. Officials would create a trigger for a new set of restrictions known as Stage One that would be connected to a measure of 1.4 million acre feet of combined storage in the Highland Lakes. That change would also reduce the number of hours a week that Austinites could water during the restrictions to 20. This would come on top of a new regulation that would prohibit watering more than twice a week.


Stage Two restrictions would be triggered at 900,000 acre feet of storage. Among other rule changes, the proposed code would limit watering to once a week on an assigned day. However, these restrictions would include exemptions for drip irrigation, soaker hoses, and bubbler watering devices, which offer more efficient means to irrigate vegetables and tree cover.


Stage Three restrictions would come at 600,000 acre feet. There, the utility would allow once-a-week watering via both irrigation systems and the old-fashioned hand-watering model for a maximum of six hours. Under current Stage Three restrictions, only hand watering is allowed. Gross said the utility hopes that this change will both encourage conservation and allow residents to provide enough water for trees and plants.


Under the proposed changes, there would also be a new Stage Four restriction. This stage would not be triggered by lake levels; rather it would give the director of AWU the authority to declare the use of the utility’s most stringent restrictions on a need basis.


As an example of a potential situation where Stage Four could be declared, Gross cites a 66-inch water main break that dramatically affected utility operations a couple of years ago. Under the proposed changes, current AWU director Greg Meszaros could have declared a Stage Four emergency in that situation and instructed a portion of utility ratepayers to stop irrigation until the problem was corrected.


“It’s written to be flexible,” says Gross.


Gross adds that the utility hopes that the new drought stage schedule will incentivize the use of more conservative automatic watering techniques. “We want to encourage folks to use (drip irrigation) as much as possible,” she said.


In addition to these changes, AWU is also set to implement a pilot program for a widely-embraced program that would establish a water-use budget for participants. If finally adopted, that rule would allow watering on any day, so long as irrigators stick to their use limit.


The utility also proposes making facilities over a certain size have a biannual irrigation evaluation that would, according to Gross, require those large-scale water users to submit documents that attest to the functionality of their respective systems. The facilities would have to foot the bill for these evaluations, and their owners would have to pick from a list of utility-approved contractors to do the job.

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