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Austin Water touts water conservation efforts

Monday, February 25, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

Despite Austin’s consistent growth and the city demographer’s prediction that city utilities will need to serve 4 million residents in the next 100 years, Austin Water feels confident that its facilities are up to the challenge.

In terms of today’s water usage, “we’re where we were about 20 years and about 300,000 people ago,” Daryl Slusher, assistant director of Austin Water, told the Environmental Commission at its Feb. 20 meeting. Barring a water usage spike in 2005, Slusher showed the commission that gallons per capita per day total water usage has been descending since 1996. This figure holds true even for the drought Austin endured from 2008 to 2015.

One of the biggest factors for this continued reduction in water usage is thanks to City Council passing a mandate in 2016 limiting the use of automatic sprinkler systems to one day a week. This was part of a vote that made Stage 2 water restrictions permanent.

While Central Texas droughts are becoming more severe, Slusher explained that the water utility is simultaneously contending with floods of greater magnitude then ever before.

“The climate projection is more intense droughts broken by more intense floods,” he said. One of those megafloods occurred in October 2018 at the Starcke Dam, which Slusher said “went almost totally off the charts.” The flood waters caused a buildup of more particles in the water treatment system than ever before, which led to the boil water notice in late October. While Slusher emphasized that there were never any contamination issues, he acknowledged that in an effort to eradicate particles from the treated water, operations had to be “turned upside-down,” including the use of chemicals in the system.

Austin Water has recently proposed using chemicals to alleviate the pressure of zebra mussels on water treatment infrastructure. In light of that issue, Chair Linda Guerrero expressed her concerns that some of the chemicals the utility is planning on using in its intake system would leach out into the lakes.

Mehrdad Morabbi, an operations manager for Austin Water, explained that due to interlocking feed pumps, “there is really no chance of a chemical leaking back into the lake,” even if historic flooding occurs.

While there are no signs that either population growth or climate change is slowing down, water utility officials say that with the new Water Forward Plan in place, and the steps they have already made, they have every intention of continuing to reduce water consumption to a sustainable level within the city.

Photo by Jack Newton [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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