Water in the News: Austin Water’s Conservation Programs Challenged

Water Fall

Between Austin Water’s conservation goals and its execution … lies a shadow

By Nora Ankrum, Austin Chronicle, Fri., June 17, 2011

On the Sunday afternoon this past April when Paul Robbins heard his neighbor pounding insistently on his front door, Robbins happened to be – as those who know him would surely guess – working on his water report: a critical analysis, characteristically unsparing in detail, of Austin Water’s conservation programs. He was laboring over the last fine points, intending finally to release the report the following week. It would bear a title – “Read It and Leak” – well-suited to his particular brand of humor, an oftentimes discomfiting combination of the silly and the deadpan, and it would charge that a misallocation of resources and priorities was undermining the Wat­er Conservation Divi­sion’s achievements, building an impenetrable wall between the utility and the community, and threatening its fiscal health. But the report’s debut would have to wait. On this particular day, when Robbins answered his door, the neighbor implored him to leave his house immediately because, just up the street, a wall of flame and smoke could be seen crashing down on his neighbors’ homes.

The April 17 Oak Hill brush fire swallowed 100 acres of land and destroyed 11 homes, including the one directly next door to Robbins, but firefighters were able to protect his house, save for his backyard, deck, and part of his front lawn. The wildfire was but one of dozens burning across the state that day, in a year that, only halfway gone, has now seen 2.7 million acres of land scorched, more than double the annual average of the previous five years. Unlike rural Texans, Austinites don’t usually experience drought this way. Here, where messages about water come from folksy radio jingles and animated dandelions, nature doesn’t show up raging at your doorstep. She tends instead, even at her cruelest, toward drying up all the best swimming holes for the summer, and even then she is politely preceded by a press release – much like the one released May 18 by the Lower Colorado River Authority, announcing that the months since October have been “among the driest in our basin’s history” and that the current drought “may be one of the most severe we’ve seen in decades.”

The timing of Robbins’ report, delayed till May 4 by the fire, couldn’t be more fitting, as Austin faces yet another long, hot, already record-breaking summer, and the city’s municipally owned water utility faces budget season. Despite eight years of consecutive rate hikes, Austin Water struggles with waning revenues it attributes to an inconvenient combination of “extreme weather patterns,” a down economy, and successful conservation efforts. When rates rise because of conservation, of course, monthly bills for those doing the conserving stay roughly the same if not go down – this “revenue neutrality,” as the utility puts it, is the beauty of using less water. But now, ratepayers look to be rewarded for their efforts with a “water sustainability fee,” a proposed fixed charge added to every bill to help fund conservation and offset “rate volatility” caused by that triple punch. Conservation is doing what it’s supposed to do, says the utility: encouraging the heaviest water users to use less. But “those users pay the highest per-gallon rates,” notes AW Assistant Director Daryl Slusher. “So it is not sustainable to depend on these customers for an increasing share of the budget at the same time the utility is seeking to cut their use.”