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Austin lifts ‘stage two’ restrictions, imposes new watering rules

Friday, July 13, 2012 by Charles Boisseau

The City of Austin on Thursday lifted its “stage two” watering restrictions but – in a response to last year’s historic drought – put in place new limits on the number of hours residents may water each week.


The return to stage-one watering restrictions – which allows homeowners to water twice a week – comes after more than 10 months under the stage-two guidelines, which allowed watering only once a week.


In instituting the new watering schedule, effective Monday, City Manager Marc Ott cited the positive response of residents to the stiff watering restrictions imposed last year, the increase in the water levels of the Highland Lakes and the potential hardship on the city’s tree canopy, gardens and landscapes if the vegetation doesn’t get enough water.


He also said more water is theoretically available because of the unprecedented decision by the Lower Colorado River Authority to curtail water this year to rice farmers in the lower Colorado River basin – agricultural users who historically are among the biggest users of Colorado River water.


Last year, Austin’s water usage was its second-highest ever, coming at a time of the worst single-year drought in Texas’ history, LCRA spokeswoman Clara Tuma said.


Austin’s new stage-one rules will limit all watering hours to before 5am and after 7pm on designated days. These new stage-one restrictions are five hours less than the previous schedule, which allowed people to water from midnight to 10am on their watering days.


Under the city’s water management guidelines, the City Manager can use his discretion to raise or lower the watering restrictions when the combined storage level of lakes Travis and Buchanan crosses the 900,000 acre-feet threshold. The region’s primary water-supply lakes, Travis and Buchanan fell below 900,000 acre-feet last August, but climbed to about 1.1 million this spring before falling again to the current 982,648 acre-feet, or 49 percent of full. (An acre-foot is the amount of water it takes to cover an area of one acre to a depth of one foot. One acre-foot of water is equal to almost 326,000 gallons.)


Bob Rose, meteorologist for LCRA, said despite recent rains the region still suffers from drought conditions. “The recent rains have had little effect on the Highland Lakes,” Rose said. “They are almost unchanged from where they were a week ago.”


Until this past week, Central Texas has had little rain since May and the parched ground soaked up the latest rains and produced little runoff, Rose said. Also, the heaviest rains mostly hit downstream of the lakes.


City officials well understand that the drought is not over, said Jason Hill, spokesman for Austin Water Utility. Hill also said the city delayed returning to stage-one restrictions because they don’t want to confuse residents by changing the watering rules over and over when the lake levels cross over and under the 900,000 acre-feet threshold.


Hill likened the decision to lessen watering restrictions to that of a passenger airline pilot who puts on the “fasten seatbelt” sign when the aircraft hits turbulence. “As soon as it is not bumpy he doesn’t immediately take off the fasten seatbelt sign,” Hill said. “Otherwise, he might have to put it right back on again if there’s more turbulence.”


In implementing stage-two rules late last summer, Austin saved an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 acre-feet, Hill said. That amounts to a savings of almost 10 percent, given that last year Austin used 168,334 acre-feet of water, with most of that coming from lakes Travis and Buchanan and the rest from water rights the city has to Colorado River water.


Austin is late in returning to a two-day-a-week watering schedule compared with many surrounding water jurisdictions that have already adopted twice-a-week watering, including: Lakeway Municipal Utility District, Cedar Park, Leander and Travis County Water Control & Improvement District 17, which serves Steiner Ranch and other parts of west Travis County. However, none have as restrictive a two-day-a-week schedule as Austin’s; the other jurisdictions all allow watering until 10am on residents’ watering days.


Specifically, Austin residential customers may now water on Wednesdays and Saturdays for odd numbered addresses and Thursdays and Sundays for even numbered addresses. For commercial and multi-family customers, it’s Tuesdays and Fridays. The restrictions target people who use automated irrigation systems and manually operated water sprinklers. They don’t apply to people who water by hand, with a hose or buckets, for example.


LCRA officials praised Austin’s new watering rules. “The city is leading the way with innovative approaches to conservation with a modified Stage 1 plan to allow watering twice a week, but only during evening and overnight hours to reduce evaporation,” LCRA Supervisor of Water Conservation Nora Mullarkey said in a prepared statement.


Austin’s new restrictive watering hours are a preview of the proposed changes to the city’s water use management ordinance, since they are included in these new guidelines. On Aug. 2, Austin Water Utility officials plan to present these newly drafted water-use rules to City Council for approval. Hill said the new water plan, which was last updated in 1997, also includes a number of other proposed changes, such as for the first time accounting for drip irrigation systems.


Some observers questioned the timing of the watering change, coming in mid-summer and with predictions that the combined storage of lakes Travis and Buchanan could drop below the 900,000 acre-feet trigger by September if the region suffers a return to dry weather.


Laura Huffman, a former assistant city manager and state director of The Nature Conservancy, said she understood why the city is relaxing its water restrictions but cautioned that state water resource planners are recommending even stricter watering rules in the future.


We have received some badly needed rain,” Huffman said in a written statement. “That said, our lakes have still not fully recovered from last year’s drought. Ultimately, all Texas cities will have to seriously consider year-round restrictions if we are going to meet the 23 percent conservation savings that our State Water Plan calls for. Less will have to be more.”

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