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Thursday, February 18, 2016 by Audrey McGlinchy
Committee takes on water restrictions (again)
The battle over whether to loosen or make permanent some current water restrictions played out once again Wednesday at the City Council Public Utilities Committee, as Council Member Don Zimmerman questioned the intent of a recent public survey by Austin Water.
According to the survey data (collected at five public meetings held throughout January), roughly 57 percent of the public polled disagreed with a move to permanent once-a-week watering restrictions. Despite these results, Austin Water Assistant Director Daryl Slusher admitted at Wednesday’s meeting that the utility is leaning toward pursuing those restrictions permanently.
Zimmerman said the utility was not hearing the public.
“To me, there’s kind of a ridiculous power struggle going on here between these constituents who have been heard and the water utility who says, ‘No, that’s not what we heard. You said no, but we heard yes,’” Zimmerman said.
However, said Slusher, when the results are considered by district, there’s an argument to be made that there is support for permanent restrictions.
“Maybe this is the electoral college, where this is the popular vote,” Slusher told the committee as he showed the breakdown by district, which amounted to five in favor of making once-a-week water restrictions permanent versus four against. (One district, District 5, was too close to call.)
Forming the backdrop for discussion of this issue over the past few months has been the knowledge that Austin’s lakes have been largely replenished after the long drought. According to the Lower Colorado River Authority’s count, together Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis are 89 percent full.
Time and again, Zimmerman has pointed toward Austin’s Drought Contingency Plan (the most recent version of which was approved by Council in 2012) as support for lowering the city’s water restrictions. According to that document, the city manager may consider returning to Stage 1 restrictions (Austin is now in Stage 2) when the combined storage of Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan has hit 1.1 million acre-feet and is projected to stay above 900,000 acre-feet for four months. The lakes currently have 1.8 million acre-feet of water.
Zimmerman made a motion to send along to the full Council a resolution recommending that the city manager move residents back to Stage 1 restrictions.
“So, I’m making this motion basically to get us to simply follow the Drought Contingency Plan,” said Zimmerman. “There’s been quite a bit of debate and public conversation that in my view amounts to a kind of ridiculous statement that we shouldn’t follow the Drought Contingency Plan because we might have a drought.”
But the utility argued that understanding of climate impacts has changed since the plan was approved in 2012 – and that droughts could be more frequent.
“What the future holds is a hotter climate here, generally a drier climate, that’s going to be interspersed often with heavy rain,” Slusher told committee members. “Drought interrupted by floods will be occurring more. We’ve already seen that. We’re seeing another dry period now.”
Although once-a-week watering is one component of the current Stage 2 restrictions, Austin Water has made clear that the full recommendations it will bring to Council in late April or May will be a mishmash of restrictions – with the potential to loosen some of the current ones, including doing away with the prohibition of personal car washing.
Zimmerman’s motion failed, on a 2-2 vote (with Council Member Ellen Troxclair supporting his motion, and Council members Delia Garza and Ann Kitchen voting against it). A second motion by Troxclair to send to the full Council the question of moving to Stage 1 restrictions without a recommendation also failed with a 2-2 vote.
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