Austin Water

Although Austin is improving its water conservation practices, water rates increased about 13 percent in the last year, according to Austin Water Utility officials.

Austin’s water prices are rising as the city continues into its sixth year of a historic drought. The city, as well as the rest of the county, is in a “conservation conundrum,” said Daryl Slusher, assistant director of Austin Water Utility.

“When you drop your water use, everybody still uses water, so you still have to have the same treatment plants, still have to get water to everyone in town,” Slusher said. “You use less chemicals to treat water and less electricity but nowhere near the loss in revenue.”

To keep rates stable, Austin Water increased “fixed fees,” the constant fees that appear on Austin Water customers’ bills every month, Slusher said.

“As recently as 2011, only 13 percent of our revenue was fixed fees,” Slusher said. “At the same time, we’re really dropping our water use. That gave us serious financial shortfalls. So by going up on fixed fees, we’ve now raised fixed revenues up to 20 percent. Our business plan is to go up to 25 percent over the next couple of years. Now it’s $11 instead of $7 per month [for residential customers].”

The City will continue to enforce water restrictions, including prohibiting car washes at home and serving water at restaurants unless a customer specifically asks for it. Along with enforcing water restrictions, Austin Water announced on April 21 the launch of a mobile app to a limited audience to study people’s water usage.

“We are testing an app … for about a year and making sure it works,” Austin Water spokeswoman Jill Mayfield said. “Ten-thousand people will be invited to use it out of random sampling. We will be looking at people’s habits — did they change, did they save water because of this?”

Stephanie Hamborsky, Plan II and biology junior and UT Microfarm development assistant, said water restrictions are a step in the right direction, but she would like to see more stringent enforcement.

“I think it’s important the City cracks down on usages of water that are not necessary,” Hamborsky said. “A lot of people have concerns about individual freedoms and rights, but unless we want to prevent the drought from worsening, we need to do things now. The rising cost of water is a problem, especially for economically disadvantaged citizens in Austin. But I do think that if we increase water price, people will realize it is a precious resource.”

UT Microfarm uses water conservation practices, as do many farmers around Texas, Hamborsky said.

“We use drip irrigation to minimize water use,” Hamborsky said. “It allows water to be delivered to the base of the plant, and you minimize water loss. We also use ollas — these ceramic pots that we fill with water and put them underground and they slowly leech water out underground. Farmers in Texas really utilize these types of things. Rainwater collection is common in urban farms and farms in general.”

Photo Credit: Crystal Marie Garcia | Daily Texan Staff

Slide the City, a Utah-based water slide company, wants to transform the streets of Austin into a 1,000-foot vinyl slip and slide.

The company tours the country, making stops in more than 20 cities each year. Austin is on this year’s list of locations, but the company has not set a date, partly because of the water conservation concerns the City of Austin posed.

The summer tour is coming amid a stage-two drought, which is defined as when water in lakes Travis and Buchanan fall below a minimum supply level, according to Austin Water Utility. 

“Our reservoirs are a little over half full, and this is only exacerbated by the growing population,” said Lauren Hodges, geography sophomore and Green Events student leader for the Campus Environmental Center. “It’s a pretty contentious issue.”

According to Slide the City’s website, the slide is designed to have minimal environmental impact, and it treats and recycles the water efficiently. The slide circulates approximately 12,000–20,000 gallons of water per day.

Austin Water Utility has advised that this type of water use is currently prohibited because of the drought, and Slide the City will have to find alternative methods.

“Our city manager has enacted Drought Response Stage 2, which prohibits operation of fountains with an aerial emission of water or aerial fall of water greater than four inches,” Austin Water Utility spokesman Jason Hill said. “This is the case whether or not the intent is to recapture the water.”

Slide the City states on its website that it donates the water back to the community centers, parks, golf courses and other places when city officials allow. These techniques are not enough for efficient water conservation, said Jaclyn Kachelmeyer, international relations and global studies senior and director of the Campus Environmental Center.

“We will waste a lot of energy to pump the water and then clean and recycle it,” Kachelmeyer said. “It’s also impossible not to lose a lot of water from evaporation and it sticking to people, etc.”

Last fall, Austin declared a two-year moratorium on non-traditional events, such as Slide the City, in the downtown and South Austin area, specifically bordered by Oltorf Street and Barton Skyway, according to the Austin American-Statesman. The moratorium would disallow new events to shut down streets in those areas, 

Kachelmeyer said she thinks the slide would be an unnecessary waste of water.

“We don’t need to pump water and set up slides to have fun in Austin,” Kachelmeyer said. “We can take advantage of Austin’s wonderful local elements, like Lady Bird Lake, without being wasteful.”

Radio-television-film sophomore Katherine Brookshire said she thinks the water slide would be fun to see.

“I would want to go see it just to say I was there,” Brookshire said. “I don’t think I’d actually want to go do it. … It sounds kind of dangerous.”

For anyone in Austin who encounters restaurant servers who don’t bring out complimentary glasses of iced water, it’s not because they’re oblivious — it’s probably in the spirit of conservation.

The Austin Water Conservation Code establishes a water management plan affecting residents and commercial businesses within city limits. Article II of the code states, “Restaurants, bars, and other commercial food or beverage establishments may not provide drinking water to customers unless a specific request is made by the customer for drinking water.”

The code is strict, but it still provides limited exemptions for specific circumstances. If the health or safety of the public is at risk, certain water rules may be broken. As a result, restaurants can provide, without request, a cold glass of water to a customer in obvious need of hydration.

Athletic fields, where irrigation is “necessary to protect the health and safety” of people present at practices and games, are also exempt from the code. Although this may be good news for UT Athletics, it seems an unlikely place to allocate precious water in a time of drought.

When Austin is implementing restrictions on drinking water, where should the irrigation of a football field fall on the city’s priority list? According to the code, it ranks somewhere above golf course fairways, which qualify for two of the five conservation exemptions that football fields enjoy.

An encouraging result of Austin’s water initiative is the gradual decline in demand for water over the past 15 years, which Austin Water attributes to strong citizen response to conservation efforts.

Another way to save water is to reduce electricity. Since the major processes for generating electricity demand large amounts of fresh water, reducing the use of one resource means conserving both.

Through an increased demand for both energy and a limited water supply, Austin is experiencing the effects of a changing climate. While climate change remains a global concern, even small tasks can have a meaningful impact on effects that hit particularly close to home.

Despite its usual effort to conserve water by keeping the campus fountains off, UT will be running the LBJ fountain for the duration of the Civil Rights Summit. 

Photo Credit: Marshall Tidrick | Daily Texan Staff

While Austin is under stage two watering restrictions, the University, which is not required to follow city ordinances, will run the LBJ Fountain through the Civil Rights Summit on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

Since 2012, the city has been in stage two, which restricts the owners of multi-family residential, commercial or city municipal facilities to watering one day per week in the early morning or late evening.

According to Laurie Lentz, UT business and financial services communications manager, when the city went into watering restrictions, the University decided to adhere to these regulations voluntarily.

“UT is considered a state entity and does not have to adhere to city ordinances,” Lentz said. “Nowadays, the state entities go along with what the city entities are doing, but they are not actually bound to that.”

Lentz said there are 14 decorative fountains on campus. Three fountains — LBJ Fountain, Littlefield Fountain and East Mall Fountain — operate 24/7 for filtering purposes with no spray features. Lentz said if the University turned on the spray features regularly, it would lose 300,000 gallons of water a month, which would require added water. 

Jill Mayfield, Austin Water Utility spokeswoman, said the University typically follows city ordinances and conserves water.

“UT does a great job of really working with us even though they don’t have to by law,” Mayfield said. “I know the Civil Rights Summit is a huge event, and they want to look nice.”

Markus Hogue, UT’s irrigation and water conservation program manager, said his department has also had to do a lot of work on the LBJ Library lawn in preparation for summit.

Hogue said new flowers have been planted, beds have been cleaned out and new mulch has been laid down. Although establishing new turf requires more watering, Hogue said the grass does not require more water than usual.

“Now all that mulch [gets]rainfall stores, so when I irrigate that area, I don’t have to run it as long because I don’t have to worry about not [having] the moisture in the ground,” Hogue said. “It holds on to it better.”

According to Hogue, in 2012 the University used around 75 million gallons of water to irrigate, which was almost a 100 million gallon reduction after $2.1 million were used in 2011 to install new nozzles and controllers to regulate how much water was being used.

The University now uses a rainwater collection system at the Belo Center for New Media for irrigation. Hogue said half a million gallons of rainwater was collected last year, which allowed the University to use less fresh drinking water to maintain the landscape.

According to Hunter Mangrum, Division of Housing and Food Service environmental specialist, the University’s residence halls have even taken steps to become more environmentally friendly on campus. Mangrum said the University has its own stages for watering restrictions depending on the amount of water in the rain collection tanks at the two residence hall gardens.

If the garden tanks fall below 30 percent full, the watering schedule is reduced to each bed, which receives 15 minute watering cycles two times per week.

“The city is in stage two, and we do comply with that as much as possible, and in fact, the watering systems for those gardens are totally self sufficient,” Mangrum said.

On Thursday, the Austin City Council authorized a $50,000 two-year contract with the UT faculty and a graduate student to help the Austin Water Utility reduce energy consumption and costs.

Mechanical engineering assistant professor Michael Webber, and Carey King, research associate of the UT Energy Institute, will team up with Jill Kjellsson, engineering and public affairs graduate student to study the energy used by Austin Water at specific times of day in order to maximize efficiency.

Webber, the project leader, said he is pleased with the city’s interest in energy conservation.

“This is unusual for a utility to be this forward-looking, so I want to commend and compliment Austin Water for having the vision that this is important,” Webber said.

Kjellsson began working with Austin Water in the summer of 2012, using data to create hourly energy-use profiles to show what time of day electricity is being used by the city’s water sector. She began working with Webber later that year.

“My plan is to use the research so far to look at ways in which the Austin Water Utility can participate in the power market through demand response and shifting of peak energy use to other times of day,” Kjellsson said.

Kjellsson said there are students in other departments at UT working on optimizing and improving water-treatment technologies.

“The $50,000 will help cover part of the costs associated with graduate research assistant stipends and tuition,” Webber said.

“There are a lot of people who study water and a lot who study energy, but I don’t think there are a lot of people studying how much energy is in water,” Webber said. “Nationally, more energy is used for water than people expect — about 12 percent of energy consumption is water pumping.”

Jill Mayfield, Austin Water’s public information coordinator, said water and energy usage is greatest at night when the water is pumped into the reservoirs to be treated.

Austin Water is the largest energy user in Austin because the water treatment pumps consume so much energy, so the city is constantly looking for ways to reduce its peak energy demand, Mayfield said.

Before the project begins, the agreement must be signed by the assistant city manager and the University’s vice president, said Raj Bhattarai, City of Austin division manager.

“I don’t foresee any complications,” Bhattarai said. “We’ve entered into other contracts with other professors at UT … we do a number of other projects with UT. It should be pretty straight forward, pretty routine.”

In October 2011, the City of Austin switched to a more expensive but renewable energy provider, GreenChoice, which costs about $5 million more than the city’s previous energy provider that used 85 percent more greenhouse gases, Bhattarai said.

“Even a modest saving in energy would be quite substantial for us, so that’s the reason we’re doing this project,” Bhattarai said.

Bhattarai said the contract stipulates Webber and his team will brief Austin Water Utility up to four times each year for the duration of the project.

Webber said the research will benefit not only the City of Austin, but also the students at UT.

“This research report helps UT students understand the energy-water nexus better,” Kjellsson said. “Energy and water are linked in many ways, and this research addresses one of those ways — the energy used to move and treat water and wastewater.”

As the dry conditions in Austin continue, UT is making an ongoing effort to conserve water through major changes to its irrigation system.

Markus Hogue, UT’s irrigation and water conservation coordinator, gave a presentation of UT’s recent water conservation efforts to the Central Texas Water Efficiency Network on Thursday. The network is a group of municipalities, water providers and conservation advocates in the Austin area that includes UT, Austin Water and Austin I.S.D. among its members.

“In a time of drought, everybody’s watching what we are using with water. We need to be good users of our water source,” Hogue said. “When people see green, they think ‘water waste.’ We want to prove that we can keep a green campus but do other things to conserve.”

Hogue said despite the recent rain, drought is still a major issue for the area and water conservation is especially important.

“We don’t know how long it’s going to last. These rains that we had have not filled up the lakes in our area. We’re having to find alternative sources of water,” Hogue said. “Everybody’s coming to Texas. The prices of water are skyrocketing. Our goal to help keep our water source down is by conserving.”

Hogue highlighted the upgrades to the University’s irrigation system. The new automated system, which cost $2.1 million, has reduced irrigation usage by 66 percent and saved 90 to 100 million gallons of water. One of the main features of the new system is the central management. Unlike before, Hogue can now control the system directly from his computer or handheld device. Furthermore, the system alerts the computer when a sprinkle break has occurred and water is leaking out. This feature has saved more than 9 million gallons alone. Some other changes include new nozzles and controllers that have been installed across the campus. 

Xeriscaping, pronounced zero-scaping, is a type of landscaping that focuses on saving water through limited plant material, which has also been implemented.

However, according to Mark Jordan, Austin Water conservation program coordinator, the irrigation system is not the only major change in the University’s effort to conserve water.

“Irrigation is only part of the story,” Jordan said. “They’ve done an amazing job to retrofit indoor equipment and use reclaimed water.”

Reclaimed water is recycled water that comes from wastewater treatment plants. Instead of being sent to the Colorado River, this highly-treated water has started to be used for nondrinking purposes by the university. Austin Water and UT connected a chilling station on campus to the city’s reclaimed water system in March.

At the meeting, Hogue also gave a tour of the Belo Center as an example of some the efforts made by the University. He said he plans to continue to improve water conservation on campus.

Water Treatment Plant 4, the only plant to draw water from Lake Travis, received an extra $15.5 million dollars in December 2012 for the completion of the project and is expected to be completed in 2014. 

Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

The City of Austin reported its new water treatment plant is on track for completion following a decision last December by the City Council to grant extra $15 million to the project.

Water Treatment Plant 4, a project that started in 2009, will be the city’s third water treatment plant and the only plant to draw water from Lake Travis. The city’s other two plants draw water from Lake Austin. Austin Water released an update Monday saying the treatment plant is now more than halfway complete. The plant will serve the north and northwest areas of Austin and have the ability to treat 50 million gallons of water per day with the possibility of expansion of up to 300 million gallons per day. 

Austin Water spokesman Jill Mayfield said most of the plant’s exterior structures are complete.

“Things are on track to be completed by 2014,” Mayfield said. “We’re doing a lot of work inside — structural work and equipment that will clean the water inside. There is work still being done on the Jollyville tunnel.”

In December 2012 the City Council approved an extra $15.5 million dollars for the project, bringing total project costs to $523.5 million. Michael McGill, chief of staff for Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, said the council did not initially expect to allocate these additional funds.

“Last fall we got the update that they were in need of additional funds to complete the project, so that was something that came as a surprise to members of council based on the way we structured the project several years ago,” McGill said. “It’s impressive that they were able to keep this project so close to half a billion dollars, so some credit is due, though it’s not great that we went over on some of the costs.”

McGill said that while the plant is currently a huge project, the city is still hoping to find ways to conserve more water while it is treating more.

“How do we make sure we conserve water in ever greater amounts so that we don’t need to suck dry those lakes?” McGill said. “That’s a challenge. It’s a behavioral change on an individual level. [The plant] is the largest capital project in the city’s history, so it’s certainly something we’re paying a lot of attention to.”

After the plant is completed, McGill said, the council has many other water issues they hope to address.

Collaborative efforts between UT and Austin Water showed that purple is the new green at a celebration ceremony Wednesday to mark the completion of a project aimed to save water, cut costs and increase system efficiency.

A new system of purple pipes, colored to distinguish the system from potable water, was installed to link the University’s chilling stations with Austin Water’s reclaimed water system, allowing campus buildings to use filtered wastewater instead of potable water for cooling systems.

Mayor Lee Leffingwell and other officials turned a ceremonial valve to initiate the system. Director of Austin Water Greg Meszaros said the system is the product of a 30-year master plan.

Since the first initiative to reclaim water for irrigation in 1974, according to Austin Water, conservation efforts have led to a total of about 1.5 billion gallons of water saved annually throughout the city.

“It’s a dedication of years of planning,” Meszaros said. “Even several retired workers are here today. It’s just one project of many to come.”

Instead of discharging into the Colorado River, some water from wastewater treatment plants will now be directed to UT for uses other than drinking water, such as cooling campus buildings.

The city invested $16 million to transport the pipes to the University, according to Juan Ontiveros, the executive director for utilities and energy management. According to a press release from the Utilities and Energy Management Department, the new system will save 70 million gallons of potable water each year. In 2012, the University recovered between 50 and 60 million gallons of water to cooling towers. Between 2008 and 2011, annual recovered water ranged from 30 to 40 million gallons.

“It’s an important message for campus to understand about doing the right thing for the environment and at the same time cutting costs,” Ontiveros said. “It’s about stewardship and we all have to do our part.”

Ontiveros said, since the beginning of his career at UT, the University has improved 40 percent overall energy efficiency and a total of 25 percent water efficiency. Along with these improvements, UT is operating on the same amount of energy that it did nearly 40 years ago. “Sixteen years ago when I started, we had 9 million less square feet and yet [our usage is equivalent to] 1976 levels,” Ontiveros said. “No one in the world has ever done that.”

Patricia Clubb, vice president for University Operations, said the project directly affects students.

“It directs the budget in such a way that it puts resources into the education of students and not towards the water bill," she said.

Despite recent rainfall, Central Texas remains in a drought, with Lakes Travis and Buchanan less than half full.

Photo Credit: Shannon Kintner | Daily Texan Staff

Local authorities, environmental groups and the University continue to pursue water conservation policies even after heavy local rainfall in March.

With lakes Travis and Buchanan still less than half full, Central Texas remains in a drought, said Clara Tuma of the Lower Colorado River Authority, which provides wholesale water to the City of Austin. Austin is still under the enhanced stage two water use restrictions set by LCRA, she said.

“Enhanced stage two allows landscape watering no more than once a week,” Tuma said. “Enhanced stage two occurs when the combined storage of lakes Travis and Buchanan falls to 750,000 acre-feet or less.”

The recent rainfall raised water levels in those lakes, but it did not fall far enough west in the crucial aquifer recharge zone, said Tyson Broad of the Sierra Club.

“It appears that the rain fell in the low parts of the [Colorado River] basin, not in the major recharge area of porous limestone that helps the lakes stay up,” he said.

It is unlikely that Austin will return to the less severe stage one restriction, said Michael Frisch, the University’s senior building energy and water conservation project manager.

“It’s more likely that we will move to stage three,” he said. “There probably won’t be enough rain to warrant a move in the other direction.”

The stage three restriction, as it is currently defined by the LCRA, is not designed to address a long-term water shortage, said Jason Hill, spokesman for Austin Water.

“The stage three restriction code is intended to respond to a catastrophic event,” he said. “If stage two is not enough, the groups involved are looking to make changes to the code.”

Hill said the diminished water supply results from events in nature, not the mismanagement of resources. He said Austinites should be proud of the extent to which they have conserved water since the onset of the present-day drought.

“Stage two restrictions have been very effective in decreasing water consumption, and we applaud our customers,” he said. “If we haven’t done the best job [in implementing water conservation among other Texas cities], we’ve certainly been very competitive.”

Frisch said the University has been doing its part to reduce water use. He said a new irrigation system installed in response to the drought conserves water and reduces the University’s water bill.

“The new system measures how much water is evaporating from plants and knows how much rainfall there has been,” he said. “It also detects leaks and sends a signal to the main control system. We then deploy an irrigation technician to check out the problem.”

The improved watering system saves the University from consuming 50 million gallons of water each year because it prevents leaks and unnecessary irrigation, Frisch said. With the University paying $11 per 1000 gallons, according to Frisch, conserving that much water saves the University a significant amount of money.

Printed on Thursday, March 22, 2012 as: Conservation policies continue despite rainfall

In 2009, Austin Water lost almost $53 million in revenue because of increased rainfall across Texas and lower consumption rate, said David Anders, assistant director of business support services for the utility company.

In response, this Tuesday, Austin Water enacted the new fixed Revenue Stability Fee, which will cause monthly rates to increase based on the amount of water used, he said.

“Our average customer consumes 77 hundred gallons of water and 47 hundred gallons of wastewater [monthly],” Anders said. “Currently, that costs the consumer about $64.88. Under the new rates, it will rise to $72.67, which is about a 12 percent increase [per consumer on average].”

He said the fee will most significantly impact consumers who use more than 15,000 gallons of water monthly.

Director of residential facilities Randy Porter said the Department of Housing and Food Services would certainly be affected by an increase in rates.

“Utility rates are obviously part of our expenses, and they factor into our anticipated costs,” Porter said.

He said the department has been trying to limit water usage by replacing all shower heads and toilets with low usage systems during any remodeling. He also said the department tries to educate its residents about conservation.

“We implement a lot of conservation-type programs to try to keep our costs down,” he said. “And we are always looking at ways to limit our water consumption.”

Juan Ontiveros, executive director of utilities at UT, said because these increases are targeted at large consumers they will more greatly affect the University.

“The largest rate increases that we get are always in water and wastewater,” Ontiveros said.

UT has been working hard to limit consumption, and through these efforts, UT consumes 17 percent less water than it did in 2006, Ontiveros said.

“The University uses water for its cooling systems, and by capturing the condensation from [them], we have been able to save about 39 million gallons of water,” Ontiveros said. “Additionally, the University makes all of its own electricity, and water is used in our energy manufacturing process. Cleaner and more efficient energy production at UT means less water consumption.”

He said the University has also made water conservation efforts such as shutting off campus fountains and limiting irrigation, but there is only so much the University can do to conserve water.

“Even though we do a lot of things to reduce water consumption, the campus still uses a lot of water,” Ontiveros said. “There is not much else you can do when you have 70,000 people on campus.”

Ontiveros said the University has a responsibility to use its resources wisely, which it is seeking to uphold.

“The campus is trying to be a good steward and do the right thing,” Ontiveros said. “We have always said that whatever we don’t spend on utilities, we can spend on academics.” 

Printed on Wednesday, November 2, 2011 as: Austin Water raises rates, utility costs up for some