The Austin City Council unanimously adopted a water conservation plan for wholesale water suppliers during its Aug. 2 meeting.
The council postponed two related items—amending the city's water use management code, and adopting a drought contingency plan for retail and wholesale public water suppliers—until Aug. 16.
The two-week postponement would allow city staff to review a letter signed by local environmental groups calling for what one speaker described as minor changes to the code.
The council discussed the three items at the same time prior to taking action. Citizens' comments focused on the lake levels that act as triggers for water restriction as well as the city's goal to lower its usage to 140 gallons per capita per day by 2020.
The conservation plan
Texas Commission on Environmental Quality rules require retail and wholesale water providers to develop conservation plans and update those plans periodically, according to meeting background materials.
The City of Austin Water Utility is a wholesale supplier of water. By adopting the plan, the city is now in compliance with TCEQ's rules.
The plan includes statistics on wholesale water customer usage and population information, as well as stated goals for conservation.
"On May 13, 2010, Austin's City Council adopted a goal of reducing total water use to 140 gallons per capita per day [GPCD] by the year 2020," the plan states. "Austin Water is currently working with the city's advisory Resource Management Commission to construct a plan to reduce average water use that balances anticipated population growth and cost with conservation."
The plan states that the city is projected to reduce water use to 143 GPCD—not 140—by 2020.
"Austin Water is undertaking a comprehensive effort to reduce unaccounted-for water and to improve the quality of data in water loss estimates," it reads.
The postponed drought contingency plan includes demand and supply triggers that lead to water restrictions. The supply triggers measure local lake storage levels in acre-feet, the amount of water that could cover an acre of land with a foot of water.
The drought contingency plan recommends entering Stage 1 water restrictions when lake levels drop below 1.4 million acre-feet and Stage 2 restrictions when levels drop below 900,000 acre-feet. Stage 3 restrictions are recommended when lake levels drop below 600,000 acre-feet.
David Foster of Clean Water Action, a water quality advocacy group, said the plan was an improvement over what is in place now, but he hoped for improvements.
"We have more than three times more people than we did in the 1950s," he said. "It behooves us to be very cautious about where we set these triggers. We are calling for raising the combined triggers. We should go to watering restrictions sooner rather than later and err on the side of caution."
Speaker Paul Robbins called for $10 bets to the charity of council members' choices as to the date when Austin goes back into a drought.
"Nov. 15," Councilman Bill Spelman predicted.
Robbins disagreed with the city's decision to take Austin out of drought restrictions. "It sends the message that things are okay when they are obviously not okay," he said. He also called for the city to remove the water conservation department from the water utility because "things are not getting done."
Bill Bunch of Save Our Springs Alliance, an area environmental protection group, said that the city underspends on its water conservation budget by 30 percent to 50 percent.
Roy Waley of the environmental advocacy group Austin Sierra Club asked why the City Council set a goal of 140 GPCD if it did not have a plan to achieve the goal.
Speaker Ross Smith said the triggers were an improvement but were far too permissive.
"If someone you love has pneumonia, do you wait until things are desperate before you take them to the hospital, or do you act at the first sign of trouble? This is better than what we had, but Stage 1 triggers should bring in Stage 2 restrictions."
He also said that given the choice between landscaping upstream and rice production downstream, food should always come first.
Mayor Lee Leffingwell said the Lower Colorado River Authority—the entity from which the City of Austin buys water—has forecasted that lake levels would stay above 900,000 acre-feet. He said lake levels have stayed above 900,000 acre-feet since April.
Leffingwell said a strong conservation program was important, adding, "If we do not use [the water], somebody else will."