City staffers say they cannot expedite Austin’s Water Forward Plan as requested by council

Austin's political leaders want the city's Water Forward Plan to move forward more quickly than originally planned; however, staff say they need all the time they can take to get the process done right.

Austin's political leaders want the city's Water Forward Plan to move forward more quickly than originally planned; however, staff say they need all the time they can take to get the process done right.

Although City Council said late last fall it wanted to expedite the implementation of the city’s 100-year water-resiliency plan, city staff said March 12 they could not do anything to move the process along faster, and new water-conservation and use rules would likely not take effect until at least early 2022.

The Water Forward Plan aims to bolster Austin’s water resources and conservation efforts to safeguard the growing city against future droughts, which climate scientists predict will become more common and extreme as climate change continues. City staff has deemed it the “most important water plan that’s been produced in the United States” because it sets Austin up to continue responsible and sustainable use of its own water resource—the Colorado River—into the future, rather than taking water from other communities.

The plan, which began production at the end of the historic 2008-16 drought, proposes initiating ordinances related to mandating recycled water systems that treat wastewater for non-drinking use and collect rain and stormwater runoff for reuse. The plan also proposes expanding up the city’s water resources through the creation of innovative well systems and reservoirs.

City Council, seeing that many initiatives, such as mandating businesses to employ recycled water systems and incentives for property landscapes that use less irrigation, were years away, told staff to hurry and get these on the books, especially as Austin continues its development boom. On March 12, Austin Water staff said they could not get the ordinances to City Council any faster than originally planned, and the only efficiency available in the process was if the boards and commissions and City Council approved the ordinances faster when received from staff.

Members of the City Council-appointed Austin Integrated Water Resource Planning Community Task Force who received the news at the tension-filled March 12 meeting were displeased and spent much of the meeting figuring out how some of the plan’s proposals could be pushed down the pipeline with more force. Jennifer Walker, vice chair of the task force, said with all the development and growth happening in Austin, a 3.5-year gap between City Council approval of the plan and implementation was “too much.”

However, Austin Water staff maintained that the stakeholder input process, which would effectively take up a majority of the path toward implementation, could not be rushed, especially with something as important as water-use mandates. Austin Water Division Manager Kevin Critendon said a “credible” stakeholder process would make for stronger ordinance proposals and show transparency to the community.

When the task force proposed an interim ordinance or offering an expedited review process to incentivize project developers to incorporate recommendations from the water plan, Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros pushed back, saying he could not have the task force directing his team. He said there was no room for expedited projects as the department already had to expedite the new soccer stadium, a project on Red River Street, all affordability projects and all bond projects.

Task force chair Sharlene Leurig said there was an information gap between Austin Water staff and the task force and urged staff to better educate the task force on what was possible. The task force, which typically meets quarterly, agreed to begin meeting every other month instead so there could be a more regular exchange of information and updates.
By Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, USA Today and several other local outlets along the east coast.


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