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.

Water in the News: Drought? What Drought?

Point Austin: Drought? What Drought?

Just because we have a huge water supply doesn’t mean we have to use it

By Amy Smith, Austin Chronicle, Fri., Sept. 2, 2011

Last Thursday, Aug. 25, two members of the city’s Resource Management Com­mis­sion, Chair Leo Dielmann and former Chair Christine Herbert, appeared before City Council to deliver a briefing on the current status of the city’s water conservation endeavors. They brought with them environmental activist Paul Robbins to provide the “public” component of the presentation…

Once Robbins had finished his portion of the briefing, Council Member Bill Spelman inadvertently opened the door for the elephant in the room – Water Treatment Plant No. 4 – the very topic that Leffingwell had tried to steer clear of as part of the discussion. Referring to Austin’s ample water supply, Spelman asked, “Why would it make sense not to use every bit of it?”

“Well,” Robbins replied, “one [reason] is you have to build new water treatment plants, and given how much fun we’re having with the current water treatment plant, I can’t help but believe that you don’t want to build any more of them.”

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.”


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.