Austin eyes new water restrictions as lake levels rise

In March, Lake Travis reached 100 percent of its water supply capacity. This view of The Oasis on Lake Travis.

In March, Lake Travis reached 100 percent of its water supply capacity. This view of The Oasis on Lake Travis.

NWA-2015-04-01-03In March when Lake Travis reached 100 percent capacity for water supply purposes, Austin Water was already working on a set of proposed changes to its water-conservation efforts.

Austin Water, which provides water services to city residents, is also responsible for the city’s water-conservation and drought-contingency plans. It is working on revisions to the city’s irrigation schedule and water restrictions, including to permanently limit outdoor irrigation to one day per week and allow home car washes using a hose with a manual shut-off nozzle. Proposed changes could go before City Council on May 5.

“Lakes [Buchanan and Travis] could go down really fast,” said Daryl Slusher, Austin Water assistant director for environmental affairs and conservation. “… We just think it’s better to save water and stay in that habit of saving water and don’t go back into old habits.”

In a survey issued to residents by Austin Water in January, 56 percent of respondents disagreed with a permanent one-day-a-week outdoor irrigation restriction. Most of those respondents were from City Council districts 6 and 10, both in Northwest Austin, and District 8 in Southwest Austin. In five other council districts, the majority of respondents supported the permanent once-a-week irrigation restriction.

District 6 Council Member Don Zimmerman said he thinks Austin Water is seeking a permanent Stage 2 irrigation restriction in an effort to grow its utility.

“I think they have a philosophy of shortages and lack, so they want to restrict our water usage in anticipation of more people coming in using less water and paying more for each gallon of water,” he said.

Austin Water draws its water from the Colorado River, specifically lakes Austin and Travis. These are part of the Highland Lakes system managed by the Lower Colorado River Authority. Austin Water also consults with LCRA on water-conservation efforts.

“Everybody has their unique approach to looking at the issue, and [the LCRA’s] job is to try to balance all of those stakeholder interests and urge all of our customers to use that water as efficiently and effectively as they can,” said John Hofmann, LCRA executive vice president of water.

Conservation conflict

In 2007, City Council appointed a water-conservation task force to look at ways to conserve water, Slusher said. From that task force’s findings, council approved new water restrictions limiting outdoor watering to two days per week.

During the drought in 2011 the city went into Stage 2 restrictions that limit outdoor watering to one day per week, he said. Except for the period between  July 16 and Sept. 1, 2012, the city has remained in Stage 2 restrictions.

“That was essential in getting us through the drought, the one-day-a-week restriction,” Slusher said. “We estimate, and LCRA certified this, in five years over 115,000 acre-feet was saved and kept in the lakes.”

An acre-foot is the amount of water it would take to cover 1 acre with 1 foot of water, or 325,851 gallons.

Based on feedback from residents, Slusher said the city is considering a hybrid proposal that would permit outdoor irrigation once per week in Stages 1 and 2 and an additional day of watering using a hose. Residents without an automatic system could water using a hose or sprinkler twice per week in the Conservation Stage and Stage 1 or once per week in Stage 2.

“[Residents] felt like they really needed to have two days per week because it was hard to keep plants alive,” Slusher said. “We don’t really think that’s the case. We think one day a week is adequate.”

Moving from one water restriction stage to the next is determined by the city’s drought-contingency plan. The city manager can then make the declaration to enter or exit a particular stage.

In the current drought-contingency plan, the city goes into Stage 2 restrictions when the combined storage of lakes Buchanan and Travis falls below 900,000 acre-feet. The stage should be lifted when the lakes’ storage reaches 1.1 million acre-feet, or MAF, and is projected to stay above 900,000 acre-feet for four months. According to LCRA data, the combined storage at lakes Buchanan and Travis reached 1.1 MAF in late May 2015 and has remained above 1.4 MAF since late June.

Zimmerman said the city’s 2012 drought-contingency plan is sensible, and he would like to see it followed by lifting the water restrictions. He said he believes Austin Water staffers did not consult the city manager when it decided to pursue permanent Stage 2 restrictions.

“One of their rationalizations is the [lakes’ water] inflows are lower than they were in past decades,” Zimmerman said, adding inflow levels are not included in the city’s metrics for determining when to go in or out of a water-restriction stage.

He said he also consulted with several irrigation experts, including Northwest Austin resident Jim Hoe, who said having water restriction stages does not make sense conservation-wise. Hoe said someone who waters a half-inch twice per week uses the same amount of water as someone who waters 1 inch once-a-week. The difference is a once-a-week restriction can harm plants, he said.

“The policies of Austin [Water] are somewhat contrary to efficiency,” he said. “The best answer is to let the homeowner make the decision, and he can water and probably save 10-15 percent [in water use] on an annual basis. … Stage 2 will end up killing landscaping.”

Areas of Northwest Austin also have shallow soil, which means people should be using less water but watering more frequently, he said.

NWA-2015-04-01-01Tapping opportunity

Gillan Taddune, CEO of North Austin-based water management firm Banyan Water, agrees with Hoe’s sentiment.

“We have data that [show] when restrictions are imposed, a lot of times what will happen is folks will just flood the property because that’s the only day [they can water], and that’s not necessarily good for the plants and it’s not necessarily good for water use, which is why we’d much rather have [a set amount of water for use],” she said.

To help its customers conserve water Banyan Water uses technology to manage water use and monitor flows, Taddune said. The company’s customers are large commercial users, such as multifamily apartment complexes, homeowners associations, universities and corporations.

“What we have found is through the utilization of our technology, we can usually save customers between 50 and 70 percent of the water that they’re using,” she said.

The technology makes finding leaks easier to catch, which cuts down on water use. Taddune said Banyan’s employees can also turn systems on and off, such as turning off sprinklers when it is raining.

“We make sure that only the most efficient amount of water is applied without sacrificing the aesthetics of the landscape,” Taddune said.

Many businesses rely on Lake Travis, such as Sail & Ski, which has a retail location in Northwest Austin. Vice President Buzz Watkins said the company’s marina and restaurant located on Lake Travis have seen increased business since the rains last Memorial Day weekend and during the summer.

“When the water came up last summer we immediately saw a rush in service activity,” he said. “… All last summer and into the fall we were just covered up with service requests.”

Sail & Ski, which also sells boats and boating gear, saw an increase in new boat purchases because more people were getting back into boating, Watkins said.

Now boat slips in the marina are renting quickly, and he said he expects the marina to be full by summer.

“With the water down, Lake Travis wasn’t as pretty, so people didn’t like boating as much,” he said. “We saw a lot of customers who were enthusiastic about boating get out of boating. I’m [hoping it won’t] take us a long time to get them back.”

Watkins said the less the lake levels fluctuate the better, and continuing to protect Lake Travis interests is vital for the business and real estate industries.

“It’s really important to us that, that lake isn’t wildly fluctuating,” Watkins said. “It’s OK to use it to irrigate; it’s OK to manage the water [and] generate electricity; but it isn’t OK to take it so low—which is what happened in 2011 and stayed low for four years—that no ramps were in the water; nobody could launch their boat.”

Water forecast

Historically the Hill Country sees increased rainfall each year from April through June as well as a higher risk of flooding, Hofmann said.

Eventually he said he expects inflows into Lake Travis to level off, and LCRA will continue managing the lake’s water supply through what is anticipated to be a hot summer.

“[The lakes are] catching this water when nature provides it for us, and we’re able to count on this water when we go through these hot, dry summers and periods of time when we don’t get the rainfall we wish we were able to get,” Hofmann said.

To aid the city in times of drought, Zimmerman said the city should look for diverse, long-term water solutions, such as storing already-purchased water in underground aquifers. However, he said transporting water to underground aquifers does come with a significant cost.

He said this option is being tested to see if it is feasible.

“If you’re thinking long-term, 50 years into the future, you would think if you’re going to grow this [region] by a million people—which is the natural trend here—it’s very irresponsible to leave yourself with one water source for an expanding area.”


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