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Water Utility director warns Council of potential need for drought rates

Thursday, August 22, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Austin Water Utility Director Greg Meszaros told Council members Wednesday that the potential arrival of Stage 4 water restrictions next spring could force the utility to consider employing drought rates for water service. “We could not sustain ourselves financially under a Stage 4 scenario without some kind of drought rate structure,” Meszaros said.


That event, noted Council Member Bill Spelman, could leave even the lowest block of water ratepayers with a marked increase in monthly bills — and the utility with a communications issue. “We’re going to have to, fairly dramatically, increase that first block,” he said.


Later, Spelman added that “one of the things that’s going to have to happen is that the people are going to use relatively little water – which is going to be all of us – are going to have to pay more for that little water.”


Meszaros made his remarks as part of the utility’s discussion of its FY2014 budget with Council members Wednesday morning. There, he noted that the city will likely receive notice this fall from the Lower Colorado River Authority that combined water storage in the Highland Lakes has dropped below 600,000 acre feet. That figure is a marker that will trigger Stage 3 water restrictions in the city.


This, Meszaros argued, will have some effect in that ratepayers will be restricted in the amount of time they can water their lawns. However, Meszaros noted that outdoor watering will continue.


Should the drought continue, and should lake levels continue to drop, the city could be forced to contemplate Stage 4 restrictions. Meszaros told Council members that such restrictions would effectively end all outdoor watering and put a crimp in utility revenues.


Spelman called for as much notice as possible, should the city need Stage 4. “The more opportunities we have to talk about that, the easier it’s going to go down and the more you’re going to have a million people at your back trying to help you get through this,” he said.


Meszaros said that the switch to those restrictions would not be sudden. But he noted that residents may have as little as two months’ notice.


Council Member Laura Morrison noted that the utility’s budget stabilization fund — newly created as part of deliberations last year — could be used to offset any drought-based water rate increase. Meszaros acknowledged that it could, but added that the fund was still relatively new. “The problem is it’s just started, so the amount of dollars in it is so small right now,” he said.


Morrison fired back. “If we were five years ahead of building it, we would not need to be looking at quite so drastic scenarios and alternatives for getting through the drought,” she said.


Meszaros also pointed out that the city’s new water treatment plant could still function in a drought even more extreme than the one under way. “If there is one plant left in all of the Highland Lakes working, it’s going to be Plant 4,” he said.


He suggested, jokingly, that Morrison might eventually “bless” the project. After a round of chuckles Morrison gamely replied.


“It’s possible,” she said with an implied wink. “Let’s just say that we have fascinating and challenging times ahead of us.”


Meszaros and his staff are preparing a Council presentation for Oct. 3 that will more fully address the drought and its implications.

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