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Brigid Shea at a podium

Purple pipe to save water, Travis County tax dollars

Wednesday, May 2, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea gathered members of the media at the Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse on Tuesday afternoon to tout a water conservation program that will save millions of gallons of drinking water per year.

Those savings are courtesy of a new connection to a so-called purple pipe that will pump treated sewage water into the cooling plant that provides air conditioning for four of the county’s downtown campus buildings.

“Most people don’t realize that the major use of water for large commercial buildings is for air conditioning. It’s not for sinks or toilets,” Shea said.

The HMS Courthouse, the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center, the Granger Building and eventually the county’s administrative headquarters at 700 Lavaca St. will connect to the reclaimed water pipe the Austin Water Utility recently laid beneath 11th Street. The project will save an estimated 10 million gallons of drinking water annually, or the equivalent consumption of 150 homes, according to Shea.

“Oh, by the way,” she added, “we’re going to save gobs of money.”

According to Austin Water Utility Assistant Director Daryl Slusher, the rate for the reclaimed water is 40 percent lower than regular drinking water. At savings to the county worth $136,000 each year, Shea said the program will pay for itself in eight years.

Given that a full Lake Travis holds an estimated 369 billion gallons of water, the 10 million saved each year by the county’s new program may seem like a proverbial drop in the bucket. However, other big downtown water users, including the state and the University of Texas, may also access the reclaimed water pipeline.

“We could easily get to a billion gallons of water permanently saved from our demand side,” Shea estimated.

With the vicissitudes of climate change ensuring an increasing unreliability in the drought-prone region’s water supplies, Shea said that the cheapest source is conservation itself. She also took a swipe at several communities south of Travis County.

“We’re not fighting with our eastern neighbors to try and suck the groundwater out from under those counties,” Shea said, apparently referring to the Alliance Regional Water Authority’s plan to pipe water from Caldwell County to cities in Hays County. “We’re conserving water in our own backyard and saving the taxpayers, saving the environment, and making sure we have more water for the future.”

As for how far into the future, Slusher took a stab.

“This is our treated sewage effluent,” he said. “So talk about a renewable resource. There’s really an endless supply.”

This story has been corrected. The project is expected to save an estimated 10 million gallons of drinking water annually, which is the equivalent consumption of 150 homes, not 15,000 homes. Photo by Caleb Pritchard. This story has been updated to clarify the area of 11th Street the pipe is under. 

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