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Commission delays vote on drought contingency plan

Thursday, June 21, 2012 by Michael Kanin

Members of the city’s Resource Management Commission this week declined to offer their official opinions on a key portion of the Austin Water Utility’s attempt to redesign its water conservation program. However, the city’s Water and Wastewater Commission approved both plans last week, and it is set on the City Council agenda for next week.


Resource Management commissioners indicated that the hold-up – which came in the form of a postponement of a vote on the utility’s new Drought Contingency Plan – was due to concerns that the utility wasn’t being as aggressive as it should be with the plan’s design. “I think that this is important enough, because we are going to develop policy around this about how we address droughts going forward, I would be more comfortable postponing,” said Commissioner Chris Herbert.


The new Drought Contingency Plan is a complementary document to what would be a new water conservation ordinance, provided Council members give it their okay. While the ordinance would set up basic guidelines and definitions, the plan lays out the specific points at which four revamped drought stages for the city could be triggered.


“The code itself does not say when those stages take effect; this document gives guidance on when those stages take effect,” said the utility’s Water Conservation Division Manager Drema Gross.


If approved, the new drought management plan would use lake levels, which are measured in acre feet, to trigger three sets of potential restrictions that are broken up into stages. Stage one restrictions would be triggered at 1.4 million acre feet, Stage two restrictions at 900,000 acre feet, and Stage 3 at 600,000 acre feet. In addition to those stages, a fourth drought stage – designed to be a quick remedy in an emergency situation – could be ordered by the city manager at any time. 


In fact, any action on the drought stages remains solely the purview of the city manager.


According to utility staff, combined storage in the highland lakes never fell below 700,000 acre feet during the most recent drought. However, officials with the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) had predicted that lake levels would dip below 600,000 acre feet of storage sometime this spring had the drought continued.


Indeed, water levels were low enough for the LCRA to cancel, for the first time, the release of water for downstream agricultural uses earlier this year.


Resource Management commissioners worried that the utility was not being as aggressive as it could be with its acre foot triggers. Vice Chair Sean Kelly pointed to the dramatic growth seen in the Austin region. “During the decade from ’47-’57, they got to a low of 621,000 acre feet with a quarter of the population that we have now,” he said. “It would seem reasonable, considering the massive increase in water use just because there are more people with straws in the bathtub, that perhaps (a) 700,000 acre foot trigger (for) going to Stage 3 would be a little bit more proactive.”


Commissioner Richard Amato also homed in on the trigger for Stage 3 conditions. “I’m still not connecting with the fact that we have a Stage 3 … which still allows watering on a one-day-a-week basis (when we are) below the drought of record, with yet another (drought restriction) stage beyond that,” he said. “I’d stick my neck out right now and say that I would approve this thing as is if we raise that 600,000 acre feet limit to a higher limit.”


Though Resource Management commissioners were able to unanimously recommend the new water conservation ordinance, the same group voted to withhold a formal recommendation of the drought management plan until at least the next time the body meets.


That could be some time after Council members get their first crack at the documents. Although that is scheduled for June 28, it is not clear whether Austin Water officials will move forward with the plans on that date or seek postponement.


The Resource Management Commission is an advisory body. As such, its members’ advice is not binding. Assistant City Attorney Kathleen Buchanan suggested that “the utility could recommend that we could still move forward with the adoption” of both the water conservation ordinance and the Drought Contingency Plan. “Based on further review of this commission, if it’s recommended that it’s changed or adjusted than that could come back to Council,” Buchanan added.


Herbert was defiant. “That’s what we were promised four years ago when the last (water conservation) plan went in a hurry,” she said. “We made a recommendation at that time that within one year we would review it and we would update it.


“We have asked for it a number of times since then,” Herbert continued. “This is the first opportunity we’ve had to look at it.”

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