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Conservation success, more rain could ease water restrictions

Friday, May 11, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

A presentation of the Austin Water Utility’s FY13 financial forecast during Council’s budget work session this week became a discussion about the possibility of easing watering restrictions. Austin is currently under Stage 2 drought restrictions, the consequence of the 2011 drought, but success in AWU’s water conservation programs, and rising water levels due to rain, could change that soon.

According to AWU Director Greg Meszaros, the utility made considerable gains in its water conservation programs during FY2011. Though the year was one of the hottest and driest on record, the city’s daily gallons per capita water use was at its third lowest rate ever. AWU has a goal of reducing water use to 140; in FY11 that number was 161, down from a peak of 194 just 11 years ago. 

“Many of the initiatives we started several years ago are starting to pay benefits,” Meszaros told the Council, “particularly during one of the hottest and driest summers in Texas.”

FY11 also saw the expansion of the city’s reclaimed water program to Austin Bergstrom International Airport and several parks. By the end of FY12 all municipal golf courses will be using reclaimed water. Last year was also the first full year where AWU was using 100 percent carbon-free power at all its facilities.

Meszaros said the successful conservation efforts have resulted in two significant realities for AWU: that it may be time for the utility to consider lifting Stage 2 drought watering restrictions for the city, and that) AWU is understaffed and its staff overworked.

The first issue was raised by Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who pointed to the rising number of Austinites going “off the grid” and digging their own wells in order to keep their landscapes maintained as the unfortunate consequence of the city remaining under onerous Stage 2 restrictions. Stage 2 restricts residential watering to one day a week, which, Leffingwell said, isn’t enough to maintain Central Texas landscapes and vegetation. AWU generally recommends easing watering restrictions to Stage 1 only when Lake Travis water levels have risen to 900,000 acre feet. As of Tuesday, Lake Travis was at 963,000 acre feet.

“So the question is, when do we go out of Stage 2 and back into Stage 1 given the fact that other people in the area have already gone to zero restrictions,” Leffingwell said. “Staying in Stage 2 is a trigger for people to say, ‘I’m not going to be able to maintain my landscape … so I’m just going to have a well drilled.’”

But Meszaros said that the issue isn’t whether Lake Travis is above 900,000 feet today but rather if the lake forecast states that the lake will stay above 900,000 for four to six months. That means making sure the lake has some wiggle room in case things start to dry up again.

“It’s expensive from an education, media-buying perspective to tell people to go from two days to one day and then back,” Meszaros said. “We were thinking about 1.1 million acre feet would be the number to reach before we’d recommend an easing of restrictions.” Stage 1 drought restrictions limit watering days to two per week per household.

The more pressing problem for the utility, though, might be hiring enough new staff to keep up with demand. Since 2005, the year the city’s water conservation efforts moved to AWU, the number of water and wastewater customers has grown by about 70,000. The number of full-time AWU employees during that same period has remained essentially flat, at just over 1000.

“We’ve really been trying to leverage our workforce, use technology in other ways, to be more productive, but that isn’t going to be able to continue indefinitely into the future,” Meszaros said.

To rectify the situation, Meszaros and his office are asking for a “relatively modest staffing increase” of 26 full-time employees in FY13, including 13 to staff Water Treatment Plant 4, which goes online in 2014. “We do need to bring staff on now and begin to train them in how to operate our water plants so that when plant 4 does go into service we’re well-prepared for that transition to take place,” Meszaros said.

Over the next three years, he continued, AWU will be asking for 33 full-time employees to fully staff WTP4, in addition to annual staff increases of about 10.

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