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City memos show utility staff fought relaxation of watering rules

Thursday, August 9, 2012 by Michael Kanin

A string of communications between city management and the Austin Water Utility seems to show that utility officials were pressured into endorsing City Manager Marc Ott’s decision to lift Stage II drought restrictions last month. The communications were obtained by a public information request from activist Paul Robbins and shared with In Fact Daily.


The documents reveal a series of arguments against lifting Stage II restrictions from the core of the utility’s conservation team: Conservation Director Daryl Slusher and Water Conservation Division Manager Drema Gross. The emails indicate that Slusher and Gross were overruled after a high-level meeting between Assistant City Manager Robert Goode, Slusher, and the chief of staff for Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Andy Mormon on July 10 in Leffingwell’s office.


Ott lifted Stage II restrictions on July 12, effective July 16. Though Leffingwell had raised questions about lifting the restrictions as early as May, under current regulations, only Ott has the authority to move Austin in and out of drought restrictions.


Gross and Slusher seem to have been holding back the tide for some time. In a May 9 email, utility director Greg Meszaros told Gross and Slusher that Leffingwell had suggested that “we were being too cautious by staying in Stage II” and had asked the utility to “discuss with City Manager.”


“I understand that the Mayor is interested in seeing restrictions lifted, but I have a few concerns,” wrote Gross. “I’ll gather some information to help guide the decision and send it as soon as possible.”


On May 16, the chair of the city’s Resource Management Commission wrote Gross with his response. “Mixed reactions,” wrote Leo Diehlman. “My knee jerk reaction is ‘are you crazy?’ But then I know you guys are between a rock and a hard place, and I really appreciate you asking for my input. I can also see where the data could be technically defensible, but the environmental community will be up in arms as will the rice farmers who didn’t get their water this year and the folks who rely on the lake for their livelihood.”


That evening Slusher wrote Meszaros. “I have some feedback for you from calls Drema made regarding Stage 2 and our discussions yesterday,” he said. “If possible I would very much like to relay those to you before any recommendation from (the utility) is made.”


The next afternoon, Meszaros confirmed that he would speak to Slusher before “finalizing any recommendation.”


The idea of lifting the restrictions shows up again in a June 5 email exchange between Slusher and Gross. “My last conversation with Greg, yesterday, was that we would remain in Stage 2 as recommended,” wrote Slusher.


However, on June 11, Meszaros penned a memo to Ott suggesting a compromise approach to lifting Stage II restrictions. “I believe it is feasible to lift Stage 2 recommendations in order to provide relief for customers concerned about trees, as well as other landscape investments, as we head into the hottest part of the summer,” Meszaros wrote.


The utility director further suggested that, “mandatory watering hours under a twice-per-week schedule are aligned with the code revisions proposed for Council consideration later this month.” This adjustment reflects concerns that Gross and Slusher would later outline in a detailed memo.


A week ago, Council members delayed action on a new set of advanced water use restrictions, citing concerns from the environmental community (see In Fact Daily, Aug. 6, 2012). The item was postponed until next week’s Council meeting.


On the morning of July 3, Slusher got an email from Meszaros. It asked him “to check in on the stage II water restrictions” and “(set) up a meeting with the Mayor.” Slusher forwarded the note to Gross.


When Gross told Slusher that she would be running a few errands at lunch, Slusher replied “(d)on’t anticipate anything that soon, just sent email as a FYI.”


A week later, Slusher and Gross worked up a page-long memo pleading their case. The meat of it was expressed in bullet points.


Among these were the fact that “the region is still in a drought and lake levels are dropping, now below one million acre feet (979,374 acre feet, or 49% full, on July 9 according to LCRA website)”; that “(t)he worst of evaporation is yet to come”; and that “(t)he rice farmers have been curtailed and if the City lifts Stage 2 that could hurt the City’s standing in future Water Management Plan negotiations and potentially at the legislative session where we know the rice farmers are active.”


The memo discusses the pending efforts at passing the new water code restrictions, and the “significant strides in improving relations with…citizens,” presumably including Robbins, long-skeptical of the utility’s conservation efforts. In addition, it references “ongoing efforts to improve the relationship with the Resource Management Commission.”


“Lifting Stage 2 at this point could damage those efforts, including damaging the chance of passing the Joint Committee recommendations and the code changes,” reads the memo. “Additionally, the fallout from these renewed criticisms could hurt the utility’s reputation in the community and reverse successes we have had in that regard.”


Slusher sent a version of the memo to Goode in advance of the meeting in Leffingwell’s office. “Looks good,” Goode replied.


The memo lifting water restrictions was drafted the next day. It included changes suggested by Slusher and Gross concerning watering hours detailed in the potential water code changes.


Goode sent a draft of the memo to Slusher for review on July 11. ““Marc (Ott) wants to get this out tomorrow,” Goode wrote.

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