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Water Task Force chair urges innovation for utility

Wednesday, September 24, 2014 by Michael Kanin

The chair of a task force charged with examining the City of Austin’s position relative to its water resources urged City Council members Tuesday to angle toward “decentralization” of water supply management philosophy and innovation. The switch was suggested to fend off deeper negative impacts related to dwindling supplies.

Sharlene Leurig, director of the Sustainable Water Infrastructure Program at water resources group Ceres, said that some of that thinking might, in the future, lead the city toward on-site water options and other such solutions. She suggested that could turn developers into water supply partners with the city.

“We’ve come from kind of a legacy mental model that we get water from a central water provider — Austin Water in the case of our community — and that that’s the only opportunity we have for getting more water,” Leurig told Council members as part of their Tuesday work session. “But the technologies that we have today leave that mental model in the dust. The costs of pursuing fully centralized supply, I think, are being borne out through the ongoing yearly negotiation around rates (and) the increase in cost of rates here in Austin.”

Though Leurig added that the cost issue was not one that is unique to Austin, she continued to press Council members to consider “ways of tapping into the city itself as a resource,” a move she said the task force took.

Leurig pointed to the New School’s University Center and KB Homes’ Double Zero project as examples. According to the New School’s website, water design at University Center “will cut potable water usage by 74 percent and reduce sewer discharges by 89 percent, making it one of New York’s lowest-impact mixed-use high-rise buildings.”

According to a news release about the KB Homes project, the company “estimates that the Double ZeroHouse 2.0 at Dawn Creek can conserve 150,000 gallons of water each year when compared to a typical resale home and landscaping, a reduction of approximately 70 percent.”

Still, when pressed by Council Member Mike Martinez about what concrete actions Council members could take in the near-term, Leurig landed on the development of what in her presentation she called “a true integrated water resource plan.”

“I think the primary one from our task force is that the community working with Austin Water —  Watershed Protection, Austin Energy and the Office of Sustainability — need to work together on an integrated resource plan,” she told Martinez. “Figuring out how exactly water reuse that’s … centralized by Austin Water fits in with the water reuse potential of the city itself and new development, what impact that might have on reducing peak water use within the city.”

Leurig’s remarks came as the city’s municipally owned water utility faces mounting revenue shortfalls, after a lengthy drought and subsequent conservation efforts forced Austin Water to consider both alternate sources of water and new approaches to billing. AWU Director Greg Meszaros told Council members Tuesday that the task force recommendation for better control of water in Lake Austin may be imminently reachable, and might allow the city to collect an additional 3,000 to 5,000 acre-feet of supply. But at least one other task force recommendation will be more difficult to achieve.

That recommendation would have city officials using Decker Lake as a water storage facility. “There are many, many miles to go in figuring out if a full Decker strategy would work,” Meszaros said. “It not only involves the Decker Power Plant, it involves the (Electric Reliability Council of Texas), it involves transmission lines … there is a lot of work ahead of us.”

This solution could involve a reconfiguration of the Decker Power Plant. And though that appears to be a possibility, it would require multiple resources to achieve.

The Decker plant is also at the heart of a new Council policy goal that could have officials shutter the facility in favor of solar generation.

Council Member Laura Morrison recalled a question posed — and, according to her, left unanswered — as part of the Imagine Austin plan vetting process: “Won’t this region get to a point where we have reached the capacity of population and we can’t squeeze any more water out of the earth to be able to serve that population?”

Leurig offered a direct answer. “I think, if we were to continue using water and providing water in the way we do today, yes, that would be the case,” she began. “But there is a tremendous amount of growth that can happen using the same amount of water. Los Angeles has not increased the amount of water that they use in the past 20 years — even as their population has increased.”

Leurig pivoted to again echo her call for a plan. “That was not something that just happened,” she said. “It happened intentionally, it happened by design.”

Indeed, when asked by Council members about what other municipalities Austin might look to in order to help inform its next moves, Leurig suggested recent work done by the Los Angeles Department of Power and Water.

Meszaros and his team are due to file what he described as a 15-page report on the matter. More discussion could follow.

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