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Amid the worsening drought, Austin Water is releasing updates on its conservation and drought contingency plan

Thursday April 25, 2024 by Kali Bramble

As Austin residents prepare for another round of scorching temperatures, managers of their dwindling water supply are strategizing, with updates to the city’s Water Conservation and Drought Contingency Plan expected to hit the City Council desk next week lie.

The new plan, which outlines targets for per capita water use and drought-related mitigation measures, is part of a standard five-year update process that will replace similar policies that were amended in 2019. But as the city approaches two years of consecutive drought, the stakes are higher for what some are seeing a disappointing approach.

Austin entered the first phase of drought in June 2022, when reservoir levels in the Highland Lakes fell to 70 percent of their capacity of about 2 million acre-feet. Last August, the city made progress Stage 2where it currently remains – hovering around 42 percent storage capacity.

Despite the fact that additional restrictions have been imposed on commercial and residential irrigation systems, the data to date shows no measurable impact about Austin’s water usage.

Under the proposed update, Austinites could see stricter measures come a little sooner, with the creation of a new Phase 3 between the existing second and third phases triggering once reservoirs reach 750,000 acre-feet (currently levels are around 850,000 ). Based on the Lower Colorado River Authority’s own Drought Contingency update last monththe new phase would see immediate penalties for violators of the watering code, who are currently receiving warnings. The new restrictions would also target athletic fields that are currently exempt from irrigation restrictions, which require an administrative variance permit issued by the city to continue watering.

As part of its updated water conservation goals, Austin Water says it wants to reduce residential, commercial and industrial consumption from the current average of 127 gallons per capita per day to 123 gallons per day by 2029. The plan also calls for a continuous expansion of the city wastewater recycling systemsalong with infrastructure improvements that need to be addressed leakingcurrently responsible for losses totaling nearly 21 gallons per person per day.

Still, the LCRA has started discussing it mandatory usage restrictions and Stage 4 drought as increasingly solid possibilities, the utility acknowledges it is flirting with a potentially unprecedented crisis.

“We’ll see what comes of it this spring. The El Niño has not been very fruitful for us here in Central Texas, especially in the areas that flow into the Highland Lakes. So there is still a chance that we will get rain, but we are not counting on that at the moment,” said team supervisor Marisa Flores Gonzalez. “If we follow the long-term forecast for more extreme dry conditions, we could reach Phase 3 or Phase 4, possibly sometime between September or October 2024.”

The City Council is expected to hold a public hearing on the proposed updates on May 2. In the meantime, those interested in a more detailed overview can check it out a number by discussions available on ATXN or check out the design plan.

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