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Photo by Austin Energy: Cooling towers.

Water-saving code amendments coming

Thursday, October 29, 2020 by Jo Clifton

Years after the city’s Water Forward Committee recommended changes to require on-site water reuse systems for commercial development, an item to put the matter into city regulations appears headed for a City Council agenda in December.

Austin Water Assistant Director Kevin Crittendon told Council’s water oversight committee Wednesday that the department wants to make changes to water utility regulations governing cooling tower operations as well. Those changes, he said, would save “1,000 acre-feet a year by 2040.”

Crittendon told the Austin Monitor that the city wants to encourage commercial developers to use graywater, storm water and rainwater for what are called non-potable uses. For example, he said the downtown library uses reclaimed water to flush toilets.

The Water Forward Committee recommended a specific mandate for commercial buildings larger than 250,000 square feet, but it remains to be seen how that will be written into the code. Originally, this provision was supposed to be part of the new Land Development Code. However, since District Judge Jan Soifer enjoined Council from moving forward with zoning changes without a supermajority of Council approving the new code, Council has not taken up other proposed changes.

But Austin Water, with encouragement from the Council oversight committee, is now poised to move forward. Council Member Paige Ellis chairs the committee. Other committee members include Leslie Pool, who is vice chair, Alison Alter and Ann Kitchen. Pool, Alter and Kitchen all voted against adoption of the ill-fated Land Development Code.

On Wednesday, all three indicated strong support for bringing forward not just the two changes outlined by Crittendon, but a number of other water-saving regulations, instead of waiting for a final decision on the LDC. Ellis, the only member of the committee who voted in favor of the new land use code, expressed hesitation about adopting those other water-saving measures.

Pool argued that the meeting was posted in such a way that it would allow for the committee to adopt a resolution in favor of bringing more changes to Council in December. But Ellis asked a staff member if they were posted to take action, and the answer was no.

Pool, with backing from Alter and Kitchen, said the committee should have a special called meeting right away to consider the matter. Instead of trying to decide when all of their calendars would allow them to meet, Ellis promised she would get staff to find an appropriate date. The committee normally meets just four times a year, but if they wait for the next meeting, they will not be able to take action on moving the amendments forward for the December meeting.

Bobby Levinski, addressing the committee on behalf of the Save Our Springs Alliance, said it was important for the water utility to be able to require on-site water reuse in 2023. He said the city should adopt a voluntary program first so that the utility and other departments can “get up some speed and do some beta testing” before the program becomes mandatory. He said the idea of using graywater was “kicked off eight years ago. We don’t want putting this off further,” which might be the case if the mandatory part of the program is left out when Council adopts a voluntary program.

Levinski, who is an attorney, told the Austin Monitor there is no reason to further delay adopting code changes that might have been part of a new Land Development Code, but can be adopted on a standalone basis. “The ongoing lawsuit would not impact non-zoning code changes so these could move forward without any concern about the lawsuit,” he said. At Kitchen’s suggestion, Ellis agreed the committee could have an executive session to get legal advice when they have their special called meeting.

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