Water in the News: Leak No More

Leak No More: Paul Robbins on Austin Water

New report criticizes Austin Water’s conservation efforts

Last week, environmental activist and gadfly Paul Robbins released a report – “Read It and Leak” – deeply critical of city water utility Austin Water‘s current conservation efforts. Robbins has been involved with resource management advocacy and research in Austin for more than three decades, and his 67-page analysis grants little quarter, taking aim even at AW’s most successful programs. “In recent years,” he writes, the utility’s “momentum [on conservation] has stalled, the leadership has faltered, and the record of various programs is checkered.”

In response, AW Assistant Director Daryl Slusher defended the utility, asking that if the momentum has indeed stalled, “How does one explain … a dramatic drop in water usage since 2007?” Robbins readily admits that the utility has gotten some things right. While heavy rainfall in 2007 and 2010 partly explains the drop, Robbins also credits the utility’s emergency restrictions – a successful combination of once-a-week watering, heavy public outreach, and citations for noncompliance – during the drought in 2009. “To make sense of why these numbers were so low,” Robbins says, he analyzed 10 years’ worth of data, month by month, considering rainfall and other factors. What he found is that those three months of restrictions and citations were so effective that even once they ended in November 2009, “people still remembered the drought and adjusted their irrigation habits.”

“The report is a policy audit; it is not a hatchet job,” says Robbins. “I gave them credit when it was due. More often, I criticized it because that was due.” Even the watering restrictions, says Robbins – the utility’s “most effective program” – would be “more effective if granted adequate resources.” Despite the lessons learned from the drought, the watering restrictions program (which limits watering to two days per week) suffers from understaffing and weak enforcement, he reports. He also writes that it lacks “alternative compliance” options – such as exemptions for less wasteful systems like drip irrigation – found in other Texas cities.