What to know about water conservation in Austin

My introduction to water scarcity began with an episode of Star Trek in which, on a planet far far away, wars were being fought over a precious resource water. If I remember correctly, the Star Trek officers were shocked by this conflict, having water so readily available aboard their intergalactic vessel. 

However, to our generation of earthlings, this problem isn’t so unimaginable. Most of us have heard that water scarcity will be one of the major issues of the next century, especially for those in underdeveloped countries or of lower socioeconomic classes. Here in Austin, the dramatic realities of water scarcity can seem more far off and unimportant, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take the problem into account. Rather, we should understand the role of water in our daily lives and how we can be more sustainable in our use of this life-giving resource. 

Firstly, let’s get to the source of it, literally. The majority of Austin’s water comes from the Colorado River. More specifically, water is gathered from man-made reservoirs like Lake Travis and Lake Austin, as well as other watersheds, that feed primarily off the Colorado River. The water is then treated in one of Austin’s three water treatment plants so that it meets drinking quality standards. 

While we might be lucky enough to have such a great source of water so close to our city, this gift is not to be taken for granted, especially as climate change becomes an ever-increasing problem. In a KXAN article about mega-droughts (which are droughts that last ten or greater years), researchers from UT’s Environmental Science Institute were cited as saying that they believe “Texas’ current water plan is not ready for the effects of climate change.” With droughts increasing, both in intensity and frequency, and temperatures rising, water is going to become more scarce. 

Yet, the demand for water is only going to go up. According to Austin Area Sustainability Indicators, due to the high projected population growth of the city, municipal demand for water is expected to double by 2030. Some solutions to meet this demand include the construction of more reservoirs or long distance pipelines. These large scale projects are expensive and are less sustainable in the long run, especially since they disrupt the natural flow of Austin’s water sources and thus affect the beautiful habitats we Austinites so dearly admire. 

While more intense infrastructure projects might become necessary in the future to meet the demands of a greater population, we should turn our attention to conservation efforts first. Not only are these strategies more cost-effective, but they are better for sustainability purposes such as habitat conservation as they alter the natural state of the environment less. Also, a lot of current water consumption is unnecessary and rooted in wasteful, or at least routinized, practices.

According to Spray Away, a report done by Texas Living Waters in 2010, summer water use is typically 50 to 60 percent higher than water use in winter. While conservation efforts implemented since that report might have reduced those percentages, water usage is still far greater in the summer months. Some of this increase is understandable given the major temperature increase and prevalence of droughts, but a lot of this excess water usage is due to ignorant consumption. For example, much of the water used on lawns is wasted as it runs off into the streets or evaporates. Especially in the warmer months, evaporation is a major factor in the increase of water consumption. Watering later in the day, adjusting irrigation systems to prevent excess and changing the types of plants in one’s lawn to those that require less water are just a few ways to conserve water. 

The burden is not just on us as individuals or cities as institutions or water utilities as suppliers. All of us together can implement strategies to improve the conservation of water, whether you be in Austin or any other area in the world. Below is a brief overview of conservation strategies that apartment dwellers, homeowners and utility companies/cities can use: 

    • What Those in Apartments/Dorms Can Do:
      • Install showerheads that regulate water usage
        • Showerheads that reduce the flow rate of water can dramatically reduce your water usage, though the difference may not be obvious to you!
      • Install low-flow and high-efficiency toilets
        • While the initial cost of these might make them seem line an unwise investment, in the long-term, they are better for your wallet and the planet.
      • Turn the sink off while brushing your teeth!
        • This is the oldest trick in the book but it is still important.
      • Shorten shower time!
    • What Homeowners Can Do: 
      • Change up your landscaping
        • Planting nonnative plants or plants which require a large amount of water is a common practice in landscaping. By switching to planting drought resistant plants (a way of gardening known as xeriscaping), gardening is made more sustainable. A lot of cities offer rebate programs to those that xeriscape. Click here for a beginner’s guide to xeriscaping.
      • Harvest rainwater
        • Instead of using treated water for your garden, considering implementing a rainwater catchment system. Some utilities offer rebates for the implementation of these systems. Also, rainwater is typically high-quality and “soft,” making it perfect for the irrigation of plants. The Austin Water Utility offers a rebate for those who install rainwater harvesting systems.
      • Improve your irrigation system 
        • When rainwater harvesting is not enough, irrigation systems are still necessary to maintain the health of your garden. However, many systems are inefficient. The systems with automatic timers use 47% more water than those that are manually operated as water is automatically released regardless of the actual need, or lack or need, for it. Look into getting a rain sensor for your irrigation system and make sure your irrigation system is not automatic unless necessary. Drip irrigation systems are much more water efficient. Many cities offer free irrigation audits to anyone who requests them. Request one to check on the efficiency of your system! Additionally, the city of Austin provides cash incentives for those who request an audit and make the recommended improvements to their irrigation system.
    • What Cities/Utilities Can Do:
      • Implement Water Conservation Goals
        • Many cities have a water conservation plan, but the goals within them are easily attainable. Cities should set greater standards for water conservation to encourage consumers to be more aware of their water usage.
      • Fund Water Conservation Plans
        • These efforts include EDUCATION. Cities and utilities should make the education of the population about water conservation a priority.
      • Apply Equitable Water Rate Structures 
        • A tiered rate or sliding scale payment model should be used for water utility customers. Those who excessively consume water should pay a higher rate for water than those who make a concerted effort to conserve water.
      • Enact Watering Ordinances 
        • Ordinances limit the amount of times, as well as the actual time, homeowners can water their gardens during the week. By limiting water usage, along with encouraging night-time watering to decrease water loss from evaporation, cities can greatly influence the conservation efforts of their citizens. Click HERE to see Austin’s current water restrictions.

Written by: Samara Zuckerbrod

Sources: 

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