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Task force hears water options, some likely unpalatable

Tuesday, May 20, 2014 by Jo Clifton

With lake levels dropping and no end in sight for the current drought, Austin Water Utility officials are putting some creative strategies on the table designed to add to and maximize the city’s water supplies. It seems likely that the utility will have to utilize some of them, with cost being a major consideration.


Members of the Austin Water Resource Planning Task Force heard a variety of options Monday from water resource expert Stephen Coonan of Alan Plummer Associates. The goal is to both conserve current water supplies and generate additional water by enhancing existing resources. The Task Force is a blue-ribbon panel appointed to analyze the city’s water needs and make recommendations concerning how to augment the city’s future water supply.


The need to develop and expand water sources is driven by the record drought that has gripped the region for six years, dropping the levels in Lakes Travis and Buchanan – the storage reservoirs on the Highland Lakes – to 36 percent of capacity. With inflows from the watershed at record lows, the lake levels are likely to continue to fall.


“As we all know, we are in a drought of historic proportions, and the Austin Water Utility has the responsibility to provide water for almost a million people, so we feel we need to come forward with some options with which to augment the water supply,” said Daryl Slusher, assistant director at AWU. “We have a wide range of options with none of them favored over any other. The task force will look at them and eventually make recommendations to the City Council.”


Some of the ideas put forth by Coonan Monday include:


·       Improve the gates at Longhorn Dam to better control how much water is released downstream; 

·       Apply a biodegradable powder to Lady Bird Lake and Walter E. Long Lake to reduce evaporation and draw less water from Lakes Austin and Travis to maintain constant levels;  

·       Vary the level of Lake Long and store additional water there that could be used to meet requirements for water releases downstream;

·       Lower Lake Austin during non-summer seasons to capture rainwater so that less is released from lakes Travis and Buchanan to keep Lake Austin at a constant level;

·       Pump water from Lady Bird Lake back up to one of the city’s existing water treatment plants, probably Ullrich;

·       Obtain and transport groundwater from the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer to the east;

·       Store and recover water in underground aquifers for later use; the anticipated aquifer would be the Northern Edwards Aquifer in northern Travis and Williamson Counties; and

·        Indirectly reuse water treated at one of Austin’s wastewater plants, which would be discharged into Lady Bird Lake and pumped back up to Ullrich Water Treatment Plant.


Austin Water officials say some of the options presented would simply be changes in operations and others would require capital expenditures.


“For instance, just by lowering Lake Austin for nine months out of the year, we could gain up to 5,000 acre feet of water a year, at no capital cost,” said Slusher. “And building a water line from the Walnut Creek Wastewater Treatment Plan to Lake Long would cost about $22 million and gain between 8,000 and 20,000 acre feet of water a year.”


After the presentation, Task Force Member Jennifer Walker of the Sierra Club said the utility laid out a lot of options that she needs to study. In addition, she said the group needs to consider the values the city should use to move forward.


“I think we had an important conversation looking at water needs, water supply options and water planning and scenarios for doing water planning in the future,” she said. “My impression is that Council wants some guidance from stakeholders to balance out information that’s being provided by the utility.”


Task Force Member and consumer advocate Paul Robbins, said, “I heard the presentation and I was comparing it to 10 cents per 1,000 gallons, which is what we are paying now.” Noting that there were several expensive groundwater options, Robbins added, “And when they got to Blue Water, one of the water supply options they could document, and it was $4.68 per 1,000 gallons, I felt validated for my skepticism. That’s 47 times the current cost.”


Task Force Member Tom Mason, the former general manager of the Lower Colorado River Authority, said, “I thought it was a good presentation with a lot of useful options. But I’m not in a position to identify which ones are the best options . . . until we get a little more information. At his point, it was a lot to digest.”


The Task Force has a June 20 deadline to make its recommendations to the Austin City Council. Some members have struggled with the idea of such a short deadline but one member pointed out that they might not come up with better solutions in four months than they will in four weeks.

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