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.

Environmental Directory: 2010 Edition Hits Stands

Austin’s Greenest ‘Yellow Pages’: Seventh Edition Hits Stands

Paul Robbins draws on institutional knowledge to produce a ‘labor of love’

Nora Ankrum, Austin Chronicle, May 21, 2010

This edition, the seventh since the inaugural issue in 1995, took three years to complete and is available for free mainly at the personal expense of founder and Editor Paul Robbins.

In the current edition, Robbins tackles synthetic fuels, electric cars, and the “zero-energy suburb,” all topics that he says people need to understand more closely. “Humans aren’t descended from apes, but lemmings,” says Robbins. “What are they going to do when they run out of oil? They are going to do all these things that no one expects them to do. And one of them is synthetic fuel.” Most “synfuels,” as Robbins calls them in his “Synfuels and Redemption,” produce higher carbon dioxide emissions – up to 172% higher – than conventional petroleum, and they’re becoming more popular. “One of the things that I figured out was that 10% of our liquid fuel is now coming from synfuels,” says Robbins. “That’s a huge amount, and nobody I knew had figured it out yet.”

…”Many people who become activists start with something small like putting in a sidewalk,” he says. “I wanted to stop a nuclear plant.” He was one of the first in Austin to promote the idea that money could be better spent on energy conservation than on power plants, a philosophy now institutionalized at Austin Energy. “Austin began doing energy conservation in 1982,” he says, “and one of the things in my life I’m proud of is that I helped start that program with 20 other people.”


Environmental Directory: 2010 Book Was a Long Time Coming

Free green book was a long time coming

Austin Environmental Directory released Thursday

David Scott, KXAN, Thursday, 22 Apr 2010

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Want to be more eco-friendly in your life, your home, your car? The new “Bible” on all things green is now available in Austin.

Environmental godfather Paul Robbins worked three and a half years to compile his Austin Environmental Directory . It is loaded with the latest information on new programs, projects and products to go green.

Robbins, a tireless environmental activist, says, “What I’m thinking is in 5 to 10 years for people to have zero energy homes and cars, that is they use no fossil fuel.”


Energy in the News: District Chilling Plant Christened

Love Is …

Love is in the air at City Council chambers

First, self-described consumer advocate and environmental activist Paul Robbins – a prickly-pear if ever there was one – was read a proclamation by Lee Leffingwell naming Downtown’s first district chilling plant for him. “This may be the first award the city ever gave for stubbornness,” said Robbins, whose spent 30 years advocating for smart energy policy in Austin (his Austin Environmental Directory is here)

Downtown Coolin’ Plant Chillin’ Like Paul Robbins

Who’s Paul Robbins, and what’s a cooling plant?

Daniel Mottola, Austin Chronicle, July 27, 2007

Environmental Directory: 2006 Edition Released

Booklet packs zeal for cause

Asher Price, Austin American-Statesman, August 21, 2006

In Paul Robbins‘ telling of evolution, we are descended not from chimpanzees but lemmings.

“Humans may be descended from lemmings, but they are clever lemmings,” he said at City Hall. “They should be reducing their population, reducing fossil fuel use and switching to clean energy. But, instead, they try to find new ways to use the same dangerous fuel sources.”

Declaring that the federal government has forsaken its obligation to protect the environment, Robbins said, Austin should lead the way in investing in renewable fuels, such as wind energy, constructing greener buildings, building streetcar systems, mandating heat-reflecting roofs, embarking on a massive tree planting effort, converting the private gas utility to a public entity and powering the city only on green, or renewable, power.

Full text available with Austin Public Library Card

Access from http://library.austintexas.gov/database/newsbank