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Council approves permanent water restrictions

Friday, May 6, 2016 by Jack Craver

After an hour-and-a-half debate, City Council voted Thursday to approve an ordinance that will permanently restrict residents from using automatic sprinklers on their lawns more than once a week.

“We should be really proud of Austin,” said Jennifer Walker, the water resources coordinator for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. “I believe that we’re the first city in Texas to pass something like this, and I don’t think we’ll be the last.”

Members of Council supporting the ordinance, which was drafted and recommended by Austin Water Utility staff, argued that the change was a prudent measure in anticipation of future droughts. Although lakes Travis and Buchanan, the area’s two water reservoirs, are currently considered near-full, that may not be the case for long.

“Climate models are telling us we’ll have longer periods of dry spells,” warned David Foster of Clean Water Action.

The policy received a less predictable endorsement from the Austin Board of Realtors. Given the enormous population growth anticipated in the coming years, the city should approach its water supply cautiously, said Austin Board of Realtors’ Andrei Lubomudrov.

Council members Don Zimmerman and Ellen Troxclair, who had objected to the proposed ordinance at a meeting earlier this week, once again took turns poking holes in the plan.

Zimmerman pointed out that the Lower Colorado River Authority, which manages the reservoirs, has already released over 200,000 acre-feet of water this year in response to flooding concerns. And yet, he said, staff is proposing restrictions that it has estimated will reduce consumption by roughly only 2,600 acre-feet per year.

“While we’re throwing water away, the permanent restrictions get us 2,600 acre-feet,” Zimmerman said. “I can’t fathom this. It’s crazy to me.”

He also argued that Council was not being a good steward of the environment by imposing water restrictions that might lead to trees dying.

Aan Coleman, a landscape architect and member of the city’s Design Commission, was the only citizen who spoke against the proposed ordinance, arguing that the policy would not produce the intended effect. She urged Council to allow commercial landscapers to self-regulate, saying that restrictions on the frequency and time of watering prevent plants from developing “robust root systems” that demand less water in the long term.

“I think we’re looking at a short-term, feel-good fix that’s actually not going to result in what we want, which is water conservation,” Coleman said.

Zimmerman nodded approvingly throughout her testimony, later adding that her analysis echoed that of other irrigation specialists he had talked to.

Council Member Sheri Gallo, who had not joined Zimmerman and Troxclair in denouncing the water restrictions when Council discussed the issue earlier this week, also came out against the proposal, noting that most residents who responded to a survey were opposed to the once-a-week restriction. In her West Austin district, she said, more than 60 percent were against it.

Furthermore, Gallo argued, it is the total volume of water consumed that matters, rather than how many days a week one can use an automatic sprinkler.

Council Member Greg Casar pointed out that the survey was not representative of overall city views. Twenty-seven percent of the respondents came from Gallo’s district, he said, while only 3 percent were from his district in the north central part of the city. And Districts 2 and 3, both located in East Austin, each accounted for only 2 percent of the response.

But among respondents from Casar’s district, most had said they were in support of the proposed restriction. It made him proud, he said, that people in his district were “thinking of generations to come.”

Troxclair did not appreciate the suggestion that residents who wanted looser water restrictions were indifferent to the notion of conservation.

“Two-day-a-week watering is still in a very conservative place,” she said. “We’re not telling people they can water anytime that they want. That they can water seven days a week. Or six days a week. Or five days a week. Or four days a week. Or three days a week.”

Mayor Steve Adler weighed in near the end of the debate, saying that other cities throughout the southwest were moving toward embracing native landscapes that require less water than turf lawns. He pointed out that the ordinance will allow for unlimited use of alternative methods of irrigation, including hose-end or drip-end watering.

He joked that he was proud that the new Council had been able, in its first year, to end the five-year drought.

The measure ultimately passed, 7-3, with Zimmerman, Troxclair and Gallo opposed. Council Member Pio Renteria was absent.

Zimmerman offered two amendments, one of which upped the allowed automatic sprinkling to two days a week during the two least severe drought stages and another that also would have loosened the watering restrictions along with requiring the city to determine drought stages based strictly on lake levels.

Both amendments failed 3-7, with Gallo, Zimmerman and Troxclair in support.

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