Water Forward: A Critical Decision Point for Austin

Austin skyline / photo: flickr.com/normlanier (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Austin is nearing the end of a three-year planning process on how to meet its water needs for the next 100 years. Called Water Forward, this process was begun in response to a letter to city council from Clean Water Action and our allies protesting rumored plans to import vast amounts of water from aquifers to the east without first considering other, more sustainable options closer to home. Taking advantage of local water supplies is much more protective of the environment – and people's pocketbooks-- than piping in water from other communities.

The Austin Water Utility is now seeking public input on Water Forward. City leaders need to hear from people like you. Please stand up for conservation and environmental protection by completing the short survey on Water Forward.

Austin Needs Additional Sources of Water

Austin's water comes from reservoirs on the Colorado River. Combined storage in these reservoirs dropped to critical levels during the recent drought. Experts project that Central Texas will experience longer periods of drought and hotter temperatures as the century progresses, interrupted by intervals of heavy rain — exactly the pattern we have been seeing. Higher rates of evaporation and lower inflows will limit the ability of reservoirs to meet the city's needs, especially as population grows. Austin must prepare for this “new normal” by diversifying its water supply.

Water Forward is a critical decision point for Austin. This is an opportunity to secure future water supply in a manner that protects the environment and makes the city more resilient to the demands of our changing climate. Done wrong, it could put Austin at increased risk from prolonged drought and put us at odds with residents of other regions who understandably do not want to see their groundwater pumped from beneath them to serve the demands of another city. 

Following receipt of our community letter, the Austin City Council directed the Austin Water utility to convene a citizens task force to study a wide range of water supply options, their costs, and environmental impacts. This volunteer task force has spent countless hours gathering input from experts from around the nation and even the world. Water supply options under consideration range from piping in groundwater from other counties, desalination of groundwater and sea water, storing water underground in wet periods for use during drought (aquifer storage and recovery), expanded conservation programs, to decentralized options like capturing stormwater in massive cisterns and using graywater and air conditioning condensate to flush toilets and irrigate landscapes.

Growth Itself Can Help Meet Austin's Water Needs

A key point is that Austin can use growth itself as a new source of water. Even during the recent drought, Austin experienced a few major storms, but the rain fell downstream of the water supply reservoirs. New commercial and residential buildings can be designed in a way that captures some of this stormwater in above-ground and underground cisterns; this can reduce flooding as well as augment local supply. Air conditioning condensate and rainwater can flush toilets and irrigate landscapes. New developments can be required to meet all of their irrigation needs with non-potable water captured onsite or delivered by the city's reclaimed water system.

Please stand up for conservation and environmental protection by completing the short survey on Water Forward.

Please keep these important principles in mind when completing your survey:

  • Conservation is the most cost-effective means of meeting water needs and should always be the number one priority;
  • Bringing water in from distant aquifers, treating it and then distributing it to homes and businesses is expensive and energy intensive, and risks damaging local environmental and community needs served by those aquifers;
  • Rebate programs for rainwater harvesting, water efficient appliances, replacement of thirsty turf grass with native plants, and more are cost-effective and should be expanded;
  • The use of non-native, water-intensive turf grasses in new developments should be restricted or banned. Native plants require little or no additional water beyond rainfall, and provide habitat to native species;
  • Landscapes in new developments should not consist primarily of rocks but should include a significant percent of native plantings. Rock alone, especially black rock, can contribute to the 'heat island effect' and increase electric bills, whereas native plants and trees retain water, help cool our city, and provide habitat for native species;
  • New developments can be part of the solution if designed to meet non-potable needs onsite through stormwater harvesting, air conditioning condensate, greywater, treated black water, or groundwater seepage captured in subsurface parking garages. Growth can be part of the solution!

Please stand up for conservation and environmental protection by completing the short survey on Water Forward.