Drought spawns sustainability for local businesses

Northwest Austin companies adapt to weather, focus on reusable water

Since the widespread drought hit Texas in 2008, many locally owned businesses in Northwest Austin have changed the way they do business to keep from financially drying out.

As water becomes a scarce resource, residents and business owners alike are affected, said Stephen Minick, vice president of governmental affairs of the Texas Association of Businesses.

"The whole supply of water for the economy has a sort of pervasive effect of eventually affecting everyone," Minick said. "Even if you're a resident of the City of Austin or Northwest Austin or a small-business owner, ultimately that comes back to affect you for your water rates because the city is now having to compete with other water users for a smaller supply of water."

Minick said many businesses might need to adapt to the increased demand for water as the resource becomes less available. In 2010, the Texas economy lost more than $10 billion because of the drought, he said.

"In the end, everything rolls down hill. The consumer, residents, small businesses all end up being affected in very much the same way everyone else is by having their operations curtailed," Minick said. "The whole point is that as water becomes less available, regardless of your water rights, your legal rights, you have to start altering your activities."

State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said there is no telling when the drought will end. He said hurricanes provided some relief to the state's widespread drought in 2008–09, but not for Central Texas and the Coastal Bend area.

"Right now, the long-term patterns in the Atlantic and the Pacific are similar to what they were in the 1950s, so it is quite possible that this drought could continue for several more years," he said.

Adapting to change

Companies such as River Rock Lawn and Landscaping have begun taking an environmentally proactive approach by educating their customers about feasibility, sustainability, water conservation and more.

"I started this company in the drought," said Brant Dickerson, owner of River Rock Lawn and Landscaping LLC. "It has basically changed our focus in that we are trying to educate people about native plants and xeriscaping. People are blown away at how fast we've grown our company. I think a lot of it is due to the education."

Part of that education includes informing residents of the City of Austin's water regulations, which has helped people to become more conscious of water conservation, he said.

Bonnie Frazier, owner of rain gutter service Austin Gutterman on Pond Springs Road, said her business started including rainwater collection about three years ago to help it thrive during the drought. Austin Gutterman sells barrels and storage tanks for rainwater collection.

"In drought periods, ... people are not as aware of their need for gutters. You just have to try and focus on something that they can see a need for [when it's not raining]," Frazier said.

Because of the drought, she is more proactive in planning for times without rain, such as promoting the business' rainwater collection products and services.

"It's a growing business, believe me," she said.

A parched business climate

The drought has decreased some demand for some companies like Bruecher Foundation Services, which provides services for commercial buildings and homes. Owner Howie Bruecher said that three or four years ago, business was booming, but now he does not have as much backlog as he did before.

"I think now, being about four years into [the drought], the soil has become more stable because it's dry, and so the houses aren't moving as much," Bruecher said.

The more frequently the weather changes, the more the foundation of a building moves, he said. When there is rain, the soil expands, and when there is drought, the soil contracts, forcing the foundation to sink lower into the ground. Bruecher's business uses a technique to repair foundations called pressed piling in which concrete cylinders and blocks are pushed beneath the building or home. Once the concrete cylinders are in place, hand jacks are used to lift the building to align and level it.

Water conservation

The Balcones Country Club has always recycled its water, a step that helps the club keep its golf course in good condition during periods of drought. The club uses affluent water, or recycled and treated wastewater, as well as rainwater collected in five wells on the course.

J.J. Jennings, general manager of Balcones Country Club, said using these systems avoids purchasing water from the city. In September 2011, purchasing water through the city cost the club nearly $103,000 for two months, club Superintendent Kirk Henry said.

The club was so affected by the extreme drought that it had to close one of its two courses, the Spicewood golf course, in September 2011.

Jennings said there was not enough water to maintain both facilities but that he hopes to reopen the Spicewood location once the club has a substantial number of members. An increase in memberships would help cover the cost of expanding the irrigation system to hold more water and other repairs to reopen the course. Henry said the estimated cost to reopen the course is $1 million.

"We had to make a tough decision," Jennings said. "Believe it or not, [closing the golf course] really helped our business because if we would have kept it open with bad course conditions, you're not going to get the play [from golfers]."

The country club uses about 500,000 gallons of water each evening, Henry said. Most other golf courses in the U.S. have the capacity to use at least 1 million gallons, he said. Because the club's water system is efficient, there is little planning involved in preparation for potential drought, he said.

"We just pray for rain," Jennings said.

Although recycling water could be efficient for some businesses, there is a limit to how much of it can be done, Minick said. At some point, Texas will need to build projects to conserve and generate more water, he said.

"Conservation can be a huge piece of it, but it cannot be all of it," he said. "We are still going to have to have some new developed water supplies in Texas."


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