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Council debates water restrictions

Wednesday, May 4, 2016 by Jack Craver

Home car-washing may soon be coming back to Austin. If City Council approves Austin Water’s proposed reforms of water restrictions, homeowners will be able to spray down their cars in their driveways every day if their hearts so desire.

That appears to be the concession the utility is offering customers who might otherwise be frustrated by its move to permanently implement restrictions on sprinkler use that have traditionally been reserved for droughts. Specifically, the utility is proposing that residents be allowed to use automatic sprinklers on their lawns only once a week, no matter what the drought stage.

At a Council work session Tuesday, Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros said the proposed rules had been shaped by the last five years of drought. The restrictions the city put in place, he said, had saved 115,000 acre-feet of water from the Highland Lakes reservoirs during that time period.

Meszaros conceded that a narrow majority of those who responded to an online survey on the proposed restrictions opposed the plan, although he qualified that by pointing out that pluralities of residents from six of the 10 Council districts supported it.

Council Member Don Zimmerman, who has long been a critic of water restrictions, was eager to point out that his constituents in Northwest Austin were definitely not supportive. The soil in West Austin, he said, is less absorbent than soil in East Austin, which is why residents are calling for more access to water.

Zimmerman and Council Member Ellen Troxclair grilled Meszaros on the amount of water saved through the sprinkler restrictions, suggesting that the impact on the lakes was negligible.

“Had we had two-day-a-week watering during the drought, the difference (in lake levels) would have been less than 1 percent,” said Troxclair.

Zimmerman posited that the restrictions had morphed from a response to drought to a form of “social engineering.”

Both also wondered aloud why the utility had conducted a survey if it was not following the apparent will of those who participated in it.

Meszaros acknowledged that the numbers don’t appear big when the lakes are full but emphasized the cumulative impact that looser restrictions could have on the water supply over a term of many years.

“It’s a tiny fraction of the water when the lakes are full, but the lakes are only full a tiny fraction of the time,” he said.

The goal of the restrictions was to produce long-term behavioral changes that foster water conservation, Meszaros said. He also defended the use of the survey, pointing out that the utility had responded to concerns about car-washing and that it was being transparent about how its recommendations contrasted to some extent with what people wanted.

Neither Zimmerman nor Troxclair appeared convinced by Meszaros’ explanations, but the vociferous objections from Council’s conservative contingent did not seem to have much effect on the majority.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo lauded the proposed plan.

“I think this is critical that we continue to emphasize conservation,” she said. “I believe we’re all going to adjust how we live on this earth, starting with our yards and our landscapes.”

Council Member Leslie Pool also pushed back on criticisms of the plan, pointing out that the proposed rules allowed for unlimited watering with drip or hand-held irrigation tools. She even highlighted her own ventures in watering vegetation by hand, which she called a “meditative” experience that she hoped others would pursue.

“I think there’s plenty of opportunity to deliver water to our landscapes,” she said.

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