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Council delays vote and may want tougher new watering restrictions

Monday, August 6, 2012 by Michael Kanin

Members of Austin City Council last week delayed a vote for at least two weeks on a comprehensive set of rewrites to the city’s water-use restrictions and urged Austin Water Utility to incorporate changes that may strengthen the rules.


If approved, the restructuring of Austin’s outdoor watering rules would, according to officials, add flexibility to watering restrictions while encouraging more conservation. However, activists continued to question whether the utility was doing its best to foster conservative use of water. Council asked Austin Water Utility staff to work in a set of suggested changes provided to Council members by members of the environmental community.


The conflict eventually led to an interesting deviation in the conversation during the Council meeting last week. With activists and Council members engaged in a discussion of the recent action by City Manager Marc Ott to move the city to Stage One from the more restrictive Stage Two drought rules, utility Director Greg Meszaros found himself in the unusual position of defending a policy move his organization – according to several sources In Fact Daily spoke with – did not initially endorse.


For his part, Ott remained silent as Council Member Kathie Tovo offered her concerns about the resumption of the city’s twice-a-week Stage One watering schedule. Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who urged the change, stood by the move and placed it in a larger political context.


“One of the discussions that is ongoing right now is a state-wide water grid,” Leffingwell said. “There are a lot of cities that are very much interested in the water in the Colorado basin. Just to simplify that discussion, I would infer the following conclusion. That is: We own this water. We paid for it in advance. We have the rights to it. But if we don’t use it, I think we’re pretty well assured that somebody else will.”


If approved, the new water code would, among other changes, implement a four-stage drought system. The new stages would, through a separate rule-making document that was also up for approval, include a set of triggers based on LCRA lake levels. Though watering would be limited to at least once-a-week in every stage starting with the new Stage Two – triggered when the combined levels of lakes Travis and Buchanan fall below 900,000 acre feet – the utility has included exceptions for drip irrigation, soaker hoses and bubbler watering devices. Utility officials argue that such systems offer a more efficient means to take care of vegetables and landscaping.


On top of the new drought stages, utility officials are planning a pilot that could offer participants a budgeted approach to watering. The rule would allow watering on any day, so long as irrigators stick to their volumetric use limit.


Both Tovo and Council Member Laura Morrison called for a delay on a final vote about the code changes so the utility could consider a set of recommended adjustments offered in a letter sent Wednesday.


In the document, Clean Water Action‘s David Foster, activist Paul Robbins, Save Our SpringsBill Bunch, and Roy Waley and Jennifer Walker from the Sierra Club urged Council members to adopt a handful of changes. These range from raising the acre-foot triggers in the plan – a move that would put the city in its new drought stages at earlier points – to rules about mandated inspections of Austin Water ratepayers’ irrigation systems.


Meszaros told Council members on Thursday morning that he had not seen the letter.

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