Environmental Directory: Best of Austin 2013


Environmental Directory

Everyone who’s serious about protecting our environment should own a (free) downloadable or print copy of The Austin Environmental Directory. Call us biased, but the 2013 edition is one of the best directories that activist Paul Robbins has published since starting this exhaustive endeavor in 1995. Appropriately, water is the theme of this year’s guide, which also includes updated info on clean energy programs, energy-efficient lighting, recycling, an expanded list of local enviro groups, and so much more. Think you know everything already? You’re guaranteed to learn something new.

Austin Environmental Directory

Water in the News: The Irony of Conservation

Then There’s This: The Irony of Conservation

Austin’s water-saving habits will delay need for WTP4

By Amy Smith, Austin Chronicle, Fri., Dec. 21, 2012

This is how Lake Travis looked on Nov. 9. It looks the same today.

This is how Lake Travis looked on Nov. 9. It looks the same today.
Photo courtesy of The LCRA

“I just need to point out environmentalists were right and you were wrong,” said Spelman, referring to the emotionally charged series of debates leading up to the 2009 Council vote on the plant. “Because,” he continued after pausing a beat, “you have done such a wonderful job with conservation … and if you want to say you’re happy you’re wrong … this would be a lovely time to say so.”

The back-and-forth over WTP4 sidetracked what was supposed to be one of the high points of the Council briefing: Mes­zaros was joined at the podium by Resource Manage­ment Commission Chair Leo Diel­mann, who was on hand to endorse the conservation program’s progress and report on improved relations between utility staff and the Council-appointed RMC. A year ago, the two sides had all but stopped speaking to one another due to their disagreements over how well, or how poorly, the program was working. RMC members complained to Council about what they believed was a lackluster conservation effort and the utility’s apparent reluctance to share information. In response, Council members prodded the utility to start working more collaboratively with the commission. “We came to y’all 18 months ago very critical of the water conservation program and of the water utility,” Diel­mann told the Council. “What we didn’t realize 18 months ago is that the water utility has made very good progress toward these goals.”

But all of this cheerfulness was enough to make water watchdog Paul Robbins gag. He said he felt like a “caged rottweiler” during the briefing, which he said was set up on the agenda in a way that did not allow for public comments. The utility, he says, is still underachieving in many areas – water-saving landscape incentives, irrigation audits, and rebates for rainwater harvesting equipment and water-efficient toilets. He said he outlined these and other shortcomings in an update to his 2011 report, “Read It and Leak,” which he provided to the RMC in November.

Energy in the News: Austin’s Biomass Plant Commissioned

Renewable energy advocates have a responsibility to the public to see that their money is well spent.   At the time the contract for a power purchase agreement was approved by City Council in 2008, most environmentalists that spoke were either critical of the plant, or said they did not have enough information to support it.

We gained credibility with the public because of this.

Unfortunately, our opinion did not prevail, and we will be paying for this millstone until 2032 barring some change in the contract.

At a small ceremony amid the tall pines of East Texas, a handful of Austin officials watched one of the most unpopular investments in Austin Energy’s history rumble to life Wednesday.

A power plant fueled by wood waste held its official opening after briefly coming online a few weeks ago. The privately owned plant will sell $2 billion worth of electricity to Austin Energy for the next 20 years at a price well above the going rate for competing power sources.

“As a green-power advocate, I think we would have been better off investing in other things,” environmental activist Paul Robbins said.

Energy in the News: Austin becomes an all-green municipal operation

This article announced that the City of Austin’s annual municipal electricity purchases would all be from GreenChoice renewable energy.  This was about 328 million kilowatt hours a year in 2017.  Though the electricity coming through the lines was a mix of all power sources, this mechanism allowed Austin to dedicate its electric budget to wind power, allowing more demand  to be sold on the system.

Costs premiums of about $8.5 million detailed in this story have since come down markedly, in part due to my intervention.


Today, Austin becomes an all-green municipal operation

Today Austin will become the nation’s first major green-energy-only municipal operation, a milestone it will reach by relying on renewable energy the city has been unable to sell to its 400,000 other electric customers.

…every penny the city would normally spend on nonrenewable sources will instead go to a West Texas wind farm. This will reduce the carbon footprint of one of Central Texas’ biggest carbon-producing enterprises.

“Austin calls itself a green city. A lot of that is hype,” said environmental activist Paul Robbins, who has been pushing the city to switch to renewable energy for more than a decade. Now that it has, he said, “This is the first time in a long time Austin is truly a leader.”


Water in the News: Top Water Users 2011

A handful of prominent Austinites are again among the city’s thirstiest residential water users, including some who previously blamed broken pipes and other aberrations for using far more water than the typical Austin Water Utility customer.

With Central Texas more than a year into one of the worst droughts in recorded history, the households of health care magnate Robert Girling, auto dealer Doug Maund, lobbyist Neal “Buddy” Jones, U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul and champion cyclist Lance Armstrong used between 13 and 20 times what the average Austin home used over the past year, according to Austin Water Utility records.

The list, obtained through an open records request by environmental activist Paul Robbins and verified by the American-Statesman with the water utility, shows water consumption from Oct. 1, 2010, to Sept. 30, 2011. That time frame roughly corresponds to the current drought, which has left Lake Travis, Austin’s primary source of water, about 37 percent full and dropping.


Water in the News: Throwing Toilets Out of Airplanes

Toilet program, once flush with cash, asking for more funding

Rebates for high-efficiency toilets have resulted in 1.3 million gallons of water saved per day.

Marty Toohey, Austin StatesmanAug 31, 2012

For years, the City of Austin has offered to pay most or all of the cost of buying and installing new, high-efficiency toilets to help the city conserve a limited resource.

They have asked for an additional $3 million for the program…

Paul Robbins, a longtime environmental activist and frequent critic of the water utility, contends…

“It’s cheaper to do a shared savings program,” Robbins said. “Instead, they’re throwing toilets out of airplanes. They seem to have forgotten that money is a nonrenewable resource.”

Water in the News: No Drought Here

Then There’s This: No Drought Here

So what if the lakes are half full – it rained, didn’t it?

By Amy Smith, Fri., Austin Chronicle, July 27, 2012 

A little over two months ago, during a City Council work session on Austin Water Utility’s budget outlook, Mayor Lee Leffingwell raised the issue of relaxing the city’s Stage 2 drought restrictions that limit outdoor watering to once a week…

It’s possible the city wouldn’t be in a position to free up more water for St. Augustine grass had the LCRA not cut off water to rice farmers in downstream counties due to drought conditions in cities. Rice farmers are enormous water hogs, but they reportedly contribute nearly $400 million to the Texas economy and provide 5% of the nation’s rice. City officials and others often speak ill of rice farmers for using so much water without much thought to conservation.

Environmental activist Paul Robbins takes a different view. “I personally look at this situation and think, ‘Do they want us to eat grass?’ The rice farmers’ loss from this year’s crop would literally feed a million people on a calorie basis,” he said. “It seems OK to AWU that we waste water on grass, but not on rice.”

Water in the News: Austin Has High Water Rates

Brigid Shea says Austin water rates doubled in decade and Austin water costs are greater than costs in the state’s other biggest cities

Austin mayoral candidate Brigid Shea, suggesting city leaders have failed to bird-dog affordability, referred to water costs in a March 5, 2012, op-ed article in the Austin American-Statesman.

To our inquiry, Shea said by email that she drew upon a report posted online in February 2012 by an Austin environmental activist and consumer advocate, Paul Robbins, who edits the Austin Environmental Directory.

We rate Shea’s two-part claim Mostly True.

Water in the News: Who are Austin’s top water users?

Who are Austin’s top water users?

Some were on the list last time it was published

David Scott, KXAN, Updated: Thursday, 20 Oct 2011, 9:50 PM CDT

No. 3 in 2010, Robert W. Girling takes the top spot this year, consuming nearly two million gallons of water. The Girling maid said the family had no comment about it, when asked.

Another repeat customer on the list is Congressman Michael McCaul. He comes in sixth, using 1.4 million gallons. His office said they are looking into underground irregularities because a number of top users live in close proximity. When McCaul came in the top 10 users last year, his office blamed an underground leak.

Cycling champ Lance Armstrong comes in eighth on the list, four spots higher than former University of Texas Longhorns running back Cedric Benson, who used nearly 1.3 million gallons.


NOTE: This story was based on a public information release made by Paul Robbins.

Water in the News: McCauls’ repeat presence on top water list

McCauls’ repeat presence on top water list prompts questions

By Mike Kanin, InFact DailyOctober 21, 2011
Reprinted with permission

For the third year in a row, US Congressman Michael McCaul (R-TX) and his wife Linda have returned to a list of the Austin Water Utility’s top water users. McCaul, who told the Statesman‘s Asher Price in 2009 (when he ranked seventh) that his household’s presence on that year’s list was thanks to a water leak, and then had a spokesperson repeat the same statement to KXAN in 2010 (when he ranked ninth).

Utility spokesperson Jason Hill told In Fact Daily Thursday that the McCauls reported that a contractor had struck one of their water lines in March 2011. The couple was ranked sixth on the FY2011 big user list.

A spokesperson for the Congressman suggested that an infrastructure problem may yet be to blame. Mike Rosen told In Fact Daily that several of the houses that appear high on the list are in the same neighborhood. “It seems highly irregular…the McCauls think it may be more than just a coincidence,” he said.

Though some of the addresses on the list are blacked out, at least two of the homes—that of the McCauls and one belonging to auto dealer Steve Late and his wife Ava – are on the same street.

In all, four of the top 10 residential water users from FY2010 are featured on a list of the top 50 of the Austin Water Utility’s residential customers in FY2011. Other recognizable names include former Longhorn and NFL running back Cedric Benson, onetime health industry executive Robert Girling, and auto dealer Doug Maund. Benson, Girling, and Maund were also each on the 2009 list.

In Fact Daily obtained the 2011 list from long-time Austin environmental watchdog Paul Robbins. Robbins got the list via an Open Records request.

Robbins has been a driving force behind many of the city’s environmental initiatives for more than 30 years. The Austin Chronicle Readers Poll named him Austin’s best environmentalist for 2011.  

The average Austin Water residential customer uses roughly 100,000 gallons a year. Robbins noted that the households on the 2011 list used 10 to 20 times that amount. “There has been a proposal for mandatory water audits for large customers for almost five years. The Water Conservation Division has not pursued it,” he said via email. “My own opinion is that in drought, there should be some mandatory cap on consumption.”

Hill was unable to verify whether the utility was considering such an effort.

Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza was asked whether the utility has an audit program in the works for large water users.

“There is not,” he said. “The only thing that we are working right now is continuing to explore the options for a commercial audit. I am not aware of a program where we would audit large residential water users. Outside of the current one day a week watering and the other restrictions that we have, (conservation is) strictly voluntary…but we would be willing to offer them any assistance that we can.”

Maund and representatives for Armstrong and Benson did not respond to requests for comment.

The FY2011 list features 50 names. Girling, who paid for 1.9 million gallons of water tops it. Following him on the list are Maund, then Neil (Buddy) Jones, Paul Zito, Ava Late, the McCauls, Christopher Carrier, Armstrong, Molly O’Connor-Kemp, and Shannon Ratliff.

Hill told In Fact Daily that four of the top 50 households on the list had received adjustments to their 2011 bills because of leak reports. However, none of the top 10 from 2011, including the McCauls, got similar adjustments.

The majority of the top 50 water users for FY2011 reside in either West Austin or the West Lake Hills region. The McCauls reportedly used 1.4 million gallons, and Benson was billed for 1.275 million gallons.

Information for Armstrong and Maund’s usage was blacked out by Austin Water officials. The utility offers residents a choice about whether to share usage data and their address.

“2011 was the hottest, driest summer in Austin’s recorded history,” added Robbins. “These top water users are usually the wealthiest people and can afford conservation equipment. They should be setting an example for the city.”

Austin Water’s FY2011 top user list features a variety of other information, including glances at the top large volume, commercial, and multi-family residential users. As might be expected, Samsung’s Austin operation led the entire pack with over 1.2 billion gallons of water use. That figure represents the largest single point of waterconsumption from the city’s water system by a long shot.

My comments on Infact story: Rudy Garza’s statements in this story are incorrect.  On May 3, 2007, the City Council authorized two programs for mandatory audits of irrigation systems for large residential and commercial customers.  There is a document confirming this on the City Council Web site, and there is ample documentation that these programs have been delayed between the 2007 authorization and the date this story was published.