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City braces for imminent drought restrictions – and stiffer penalties for violators

Friday, May 27, 2022 by Emma Freer

The city of Austin likely will enter the first stage of its drought response plan later this month or next, triggering stricter restrictions and testing out recently updated penalties for customers who violate the rules. 

Robert Goode, Austin Water’s interim director, wrote in a May 20 memo to City Council that the utility anticipates the combined storage of Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis will fall below 1.4 million acre-feet later in May or June based on forecasts from the Lower Colorado River Authority, triggering the stage-one restrictions.

The main difference between restrictions in the water conservation stage, which the city has been in since November 2018, and the first stage is a two-hour reduction in the number of automatic irrigation watering hours.

Other restrictions that carry over from the water conservation stage include a once-weekly schedule for automatic irrigation systems and a twice-weekly schedule for hose watering, and limited use of patio misters by commercial customers from 4 p.m. to midnight.

Residential and commercial customers who are found to be in violation of these restrictions will be subject to updated – and in some cases increased – penalties.

City Council approved the penalty changes via an amendment to the city code as part of its consent agenda during its May 5 meeting. 

The amendment adds “specific penalty ranges for certain water conservation and on-site water reuse requirements” that “provide a more nuanced approach to penalties, particularly for residential customers, first violations, and allows for escalated penalties as drought stage restrictions increase,” according to a backup document for the agenda item. 

Prior to May 5, Austin Water’s penalties could range from $250 to $1,000 for first-time violations, $500 to $1,000 for a second violation and $750 to $1,000 for a third or subsequent violation.

The newly adopted penalties are specific to customer type – residential, commercial or facility, among others – as well as the drought stage and number of violations.

For some violators, this change could mean lesser penalties. For example, a residential customer found to be in violation of stage-one restrictions for the first time will be subject to a fine of $25 to $100 – one-tenth of the previous range.

But others may incur steeper fines. Commercial customers who violate emergency-stage restrictions for the first time will be fined $500 to $1,000, double the minimum previously in place. 

Austin Water Assistant Director Kevin Critendon told the city’s Water and Wastewater Commission in March that the utility’s aim is to educate customers about the restrictions, rather than to penalize.

“Obviously, our goal is to try to get compliance,” he said. 

KXAN reported earlier this month that Austin Water has not penalized any customers for water conservation restriction violations since December 2020.

Violators can pay any penalties through their utility bill. Low-income customers may qualify for assistance or relief.

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