High on the hog: Leaders say water conservation key
Friday, September 28, 2012 |
- PHOTO BY HEATHER BONHAM Luke Metzer of Environment Texas warns large water users, or “water hogs,” who he believes are not doing their part to conserve water at the Stop Water Hogs press conference July 24 outside the Texas Capitol.
By Heather Bonham
Turn on the faucet in most any house in Central Texas and water flows from the tap. But, according to state water planners, unless measures are taken by water users, some faucets in the next few decades could run dry.
“The primary message of the 2012 State Water Plan is a simple one: In serious drought conditions, Texas does not and will not have enough water to meet the needs of its people, its businesses and its agricultural enterprises,” wrote Edward Vaughan, chairman of the Texas Water Development Board, in his introduction to the plan.
Multiple solutions exist, but the one answer that state water planners, advocates and customers agree on is conservation.
It’s one of the cheapest methods around to ensure water supply. It doesn’t carry the hefty, multi-million-dollar price tag that building a new reservoir or pumping aquifer water 50 miles one way does. Conservation is doable by both the smallest and largest water customer.
“Every gallon we save is a gallon we don’t have to build and develop for,” said Steve Box, director of Environmental Stewardship, a Bastrop-based nonprofit organization.
Conservation is one of the state’s biggest sources of “new” water, according to the water plan. Conservation by municipalities is expected to save about 650,000 acre-feet of water supply by 2060. Irrigation and other conservation strategies by other customers will offer an additional 1.5 million acre-feet per year. The term acre-foot of water refers to more than 300,000 gallons, the amount that three families would use in a year.
Water use habits and culture change
Consumers who incorporate a culture of conservation are vital to the state’s future water supply, according to Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples.
“Making water conservation a part of your daily life is an action every Texan can take today to ensure have water tomorrow and into the future,” he said.
Residential customers make up the lion’s share of water users for most cities and municipalities, and receive the bulk of a city’s attention urging conservation. To manage water supplies – and to fulfill state requirements – cities use outdoor watering restrictions, promote low-flow plumbing fixtures often through rebate programs and education campaigns – either through a program such as Water IQ or a one-page brochure included in the monthly water bill. Cities and utility districts must update the Texas Water Development Board on annual conservation efforts and present five- and 10-year goals for reducing system water loss. As municipal budgets allow, cities hire conservation specialists like Round Rock’s Jessica Woods, who conducts free irrigation audits and promotes various rebate programs for low-flow plumbing products.
“We live in one of the fastest growing counties in the country and state,” Woods said. “We only have a finite amount of water, and we have to get our customers aware of that, so we will have enough water for people to come here in the future.”
According to the state’s water plan population projections, Travis County’s population is expected to double by 2060, Williamson County’s will triple, and Bastrop County’s could quadruple. Together those three counties will reportedly account for more than 3.5 million people. At the same time, according to state and regional water plans, the amount of water used per person should drop during that same time.
The cities of San Antonio and El Paso have already demonstrated that it can be done.
Lakeway residents Joe and Lynn Jelinski know a thing or two about living on a water budget.
“We have an unfair advantage,” Joe said, “We lived on a boat for 10 years. We figured out we could live on 150 gallons of fresh water a month.”
“You learn to take Navy showers,” Lynn said, referring to turning off the water when soaping up and shampooing. “We learned to live a habit of conservation, and we transferred that habit to land.”
The Jelinskis are not the norm. According to several area utility directors, many average, single-family customers in the area use at least 14,000 gallons a month and some residential consumers use more than 100,000 gallons a month. Much of that is spent on outdoor watering.
Round Rock Mayor Alan McGraw said last summer the city unexpectedly learned just how much of the city’s water usage went to outdoor watering. After a pump system malfunctioned, the city prohibited all outdoor watering. Water usage dropped from 42 million to 13 million gallons a day.
“We learned that two-thirds of our summer water usage is for irrigation,” he said. “It showed us there was plenty of room for improvement.”
Changing people’s water habits, like any transition, doesn’t come naturally. Just ask Earl Foster, general manager of Lakeway Municipal Utility District.
“Change is not easy,” he said of customers. “You’ve got to change the whole thought process. They mean well, they know they need to conserve, but when it comes to their yard, it’s hard. You’re getting too personal because it’s their yard.”
Reasons and rebates for conservation
Bastrop resident Kandra Niagra loves her new rainwater system. Last year, she lost her home, rent house and several commercial storage units in the Bastrop wildfires, yet she considers herself lucky. Insurance covered her losses, enabling her to rebuild and add a rainwater collection system, something she had long wanted to do. Three recent rains filled Niagra’s storage tank with about 600 gallons of rainwater, collected from one 32-foot by 12-foot building.
“It’s functional. I’m using something from nature that’s free,” she said.
Some cities have begun promoting rainwater collection. Customers in Round Rock and Cedar Park can buy rain barrels during September and the Pflugerville Public Library and Aqua Water Supply Corporation, which serves the Bastrop and Smithville area, have plans to install rainwater collection tanks.
Harvesting rainwater helps to reduce outdoor irrigation demands on a city’s potable water system and can reduce a customer’s monthly water bill. While it’s legal for residents on city water to have a rainwater collection system, environmental consultant Dick Peterson recommends checking with home owner associations, which can limit or restrict placement of the system.
It’s not just residential customers who are changing their water habits. Thomas Porter owns Vintage Villas, a 44-room hotel and events center on Lake Travis. As a lakeside property owner, he said he’s always considered water conservation to be important.
Yet finding the time and money to act didn’t happen until he participated in the Lower Colorado River Authority’s WaterSmart Hospitality Program. LCRA offers similar rebate programs for commercial, institutional and industrial customers. This spring, after an audit recorded the gallons-per-minute flow of every toilet, faucet, spigot and shower head at the hotel, Porter replaced all the fixtures with low-flow products. In just two months, the changed reduced the hotel’s output to the property’s septic systems by almost 25 percent, he said.
Some guests noticed the change, thinking the hotel had low water pressure problems, Porter said. So he upgraded the new 1.2 gallons per minute shower heads – a reduction from the original 4 gpm heads – to ones with a 2 gpm flow. The change bridged the gap between Porter’s water conservation goals and guest satisfaction.
Recently, the Pflugerville school district replaced more than 800 toilets, showerheads and faucets with more efficient ones with more than $26,000 in LCRA rebates. The change will save more than 4.2 million gallons of water a year, which, school representatives said, will save an estimated $220,000.
Conservation disagreements, disparities exist
While everyone agrees that conservation is vital to ensuring there’s enough water in the future, how that is done and by whom is not so clear.
Luke Metzger is president and founder of Environment Texas, a statewide, privately-funded nonprofit agency that promotes clean air, clean water and open spaces. He supports conservation efforts, but has taken the agriculture industry to task for what he sees as behind-the-times conservation efforts.
Known for his neon pink pig balloon that shows up at press conferences, Metzger calls on utilities, farmers and hydraulic fracturing operations to stop being “water hogs.”
Jo Karr Tedder, president of the Central Texas Water Coalition, which aims to preserve the Highland Lakes as a natural resource and economic driver for the area, said experts are saying that by 2060, an estimated 32 percent of water available will be through conservation.
“That sounds good, but how do you do that?” Tedder asked.
Tedder said she supports conservation but with a caveat – that the water saved doesn’t just flow downstream to the interruptible customers, who until this summer, had never had their water service interrupted and who pay less per acre foot – $6 per acre foot compared than the $151 per acre foot for municipal and uninterruptible water customers.
“They’re conserving basically free water for downstream customers,” she said.
Cities’ water contracts are based on and paid per acre feet of water used and reserved, and they are constantly re-evaluating water usage and costs.
“It will be more and more important that municipalities and water providers promote water conservation,” Round Rock director of utilities Michael Thane said. “Right now, you pay whether you use the full amount of that contract or not. You could see incentives in the future, where, if you don’t use all that is contracted for, there could be a payout for water not used. There needs to be incentives to conserve.”
Still … does it have to be me?
Despite the increased conservation efforts, some believe that much of the public still haven’t decided that there is any problem with long-term water supplies.
“People’s willingness to conserve water comes down to economics and ethics,” Box said. “How we use water comes back to our attitude. Our economies have never properly valued our natural resources, including water. Until we value them properly, most people think of them as free, and they get taken.”
Box said this brings it back to ethics.
“Are we stewards or takers?” he asked.
Longtime Leander resident and former city council member Curtis Corley has known, during his 87 years, times without water. He grew up on a ranch in West Texas, with water supplied either from a rain-filled cistern or from a nearby creek. In 1968, he moved to Leander. He built his home and tapped into the only available water source, a 2-inch pipeline. As the town grew, Corley and others worked to improve the city’s infrastructure and stay ahead of the increased demand for water while working with overextended water suppliers.
“The pressure dropped; at times we wouldn’t have hardly any,” Corley said. “We just went ’til it went. Then, it was gone.”
Corley knows that as long as there’s available water, most people won’t think about the issue.
“As long as you can go to the tap, and water comes out, you’re not going to worry about it,” he said. “We know what it is like without it…We’re going to have to conserve what we’ve got.”
Eric Rauschuber, Cedar Park director of utilities, said the idea is to conserve, even if your neighbors haven’t started yet.
“Be the example; be the person on the block who shows others how to conserve,” he said.
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