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Water task force recommends finding more ways to save water

Thursday, June 26, 2014 by Jo Clifton

After months of tedious and lengthy meetings, the city’s blue ribbon task force assigned to make recommendations on how Austin should deal with an ever-shrinking water supply unanimously approved a report to City Council Wednesday.


The major message from the Austin Water Resource Planning Task Force to the Austin Water Utility and citizens was: Find more ways to use less water. The task force was also adamant in its advice to the utility not to seek new sources of groundwater from other counties.


And the panel was also adamant about educating the public so that Austinites understand “the real costs – and value – of water in the 21st century.”


To that end, the group said, Austin must develop “a culture of water stewardship innovation.”


Among its short-term strategies for increasing water supplies, the group endorsed automation of Longhorn Dam gates; use of Lake Walter Long for off-channel storage; and lowering the level of Lake Austin by 3 feet during non-peak recreation months. The resulting water would become part of the city’s water supply.


The group was careful to stress that the utility should distinguish between its proposal and the LCRA plan, which would have lowered the lake year-round and even further. The LCRA proposal was pulled amid intense opposition in 2013. This proposed strategy would be implemented when the Highland Lakes storage level falls below 600,000 acre feet.


In addition, the report recommends that the utility study various strategies that the task force did not have time to evaluate, including:


·         Reclaimed water infiltration or injection of treated wastewater into alluvial sediments along the Colorado River and pumping from those same sediments;

·         Aquifer storage and recovery; and

·         Desalination of brackish water such as the San Antonio Water System is constructing.


But on a more basic level, the task force wants the utility to work harder on some tried and true methods for reducing water use on a household-by-household level.


Specifically, the report says “replacing older, inefficient toilets should be a priority.” In addition, they recommended greater use of gray water systems, among other ideas.


They also recommended asking builders “to discourage in-ground irrigation systems” and limiting irrigated areas in new development similar to programs enacted by Georgetown, San Antonio and the LCRA.


They said the utility should increase its impact fees for “new construction built with irrigation systems and other features that use more water,” while charging lower fees for water efficient construction. The task force also recommended additional regulations related to landscaping.


While the task force did approve some supply-side recommendations, those strategies are not long-term ideas.


The task force recommended that the city implement an interim Stage 3 drought restriction, as suggested by the utility, “as soon as feasibly possible to preserve water supplies,” specifically no later than the Highland Lakes storage level falls to 500,000 acre feet. In addition, they recommended Stage 4 restrictions kick in at 400,000 acre feet.


According to the LCRA’s web site, the current level for the two lakes combined is 799,551 acre feet.


The group recommended the AWU do an integrated water management plan, looking at all the uses and demands on water. The utility plans to do that.


After considerable discussion, the task force rejected numbers that staff provided to show cost and water yield for both demand and supply side options. Task force Chair Sharlene Leurig said that such numbers could be part of the integrated water management plan.

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