Sunday, April 22, 2012

Published in the Sun April 1, 2012

Final part of Drought Series

When Jessica Woods got dual flush toilets in her house, she worried that her family would not adapt to two different flush levels.  She need not have worried.  They figured it out right away, and even found through diligent experimentation that the small flush could handle most of the big jobs too.  As the water conservation specialist for the city of Round Rock, Woods hates to see good water going down the drain, so she promotes water efficient plumbing fixtures for her customers.  Toilets are typically the biggest users of water inside a home.

Georgetown and Round Rock both get the majority of their water supply from Lake Georgetown, but Ms. Woods knows that the intake valves for Round Rock are not as deep as the ones that service Georgetown.  If the lake level gets too low, Round Rock could be high and dry while Georgetown still has water.

There are two ways to make sure Lake Georgetown stays  full enough to cover those intake valves.  The expensive way is to put more water into the lake.  The cheap way is to take less water out.  Using less water means less money spent to purchase water rights, less money for water treatment, and less money to maintain infrastructure such as pipes and pumps.

Toilets may be important, but the 500 pound gorilla in the water conservation room is landscape irrigation, which can account for over 70% of municipal water usage during the hot months.  An average family of four in the US would use about 8200 gallons of water a month indoors for washing, bathing, toilets, etc.  During a hot Texas summer, many times that amount might go onto the yard to water the grass.  Ms. Woods reveals that there is one homeowner in Round Rock who uses over 200,000 gallons per month on a two acre lot, and multiple customers who consume over 100,000 gallons per month.  To help curb such extravagance, Ms. Woods became a licensed irrigator in 2003 and makes herself available to advise customers on water-wise irrigation techniques and drought resistant landscaping.  Her biggest beef concerns automatic sprinkler systems.  People tend to set them and then forget about them, continuing to sprinkle even during rain events or drought restrictions.  She prefers the “hose dragging” technique; watering only when and where it is needed.  Philosophically, she doesn’t believe that having a bright green yard is a realistic expectation for hot summers in Texas, and is frustrated that many homeowner associations force residents to maintain landscapes that are poorly adapted to our climate.

The types of plants used in a yard can have a huge effect on water usage.  Dr. Mark Simmons, director of the Ecosystem Design Group at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, explains that Saint Augustine grass requires two to three inches per week to keep it green in the summer, while Buffalo grass needs only one inch.  If Buffalo grass is allowed to go dormant, as it naturally would during a drought, it can survive on only one inch a month, becoming green again when rains resume.  Research at the Wildflower Center has developed a mix of native short grasses called Habiturf (buffalo grass, blue grama, and curly mesquite) that can survive on one watering every 5 to 6 weeks.  This mix is also denser and more weed resistant than non-native grasses.

Minimizing turf grass coverage is another way to cut back on water usage.  Why do we think that a Texas home needs to resemble an English manor with a close-cropped lawn big enough for a cricket match?  There are many native trees and plants that are quite attractive and drought tolerant, without resorting to a barren yard of rocks and cactus.

Carole Baker, executive director of the Texas Water Foundation, has been trying to change attitudes about water for 30 years.  People are so used to turning the tap and getting drinkable water 24/7 that they cannot imagine there could ever be a problem.  They think, “the state isn’t going to let us run out of water.”  The state certainly doesn’t want us to run out of water, but the Texas Water Development Board estimates that $53 billion are required over the next 50 years just for capital improvements to maintain an adequate water supply.  Ms. Baker believes that consumers don’t value water because it is just too cheap.  Although people will readily pay $3 for 20 ounces of water in a plastic bottle with a pretty label, there is an expectation that tap water should be almost free.  Ms. Baker would like consumers to conserve voluntarily, but she is pessimistic.  “Encouragement just goes so far.  My theory is to regulate when necessary.”

Everybody agrees theoretically that water conservation is necessary, but there is a Catch-22 in the water business.  Water utilities make money by selling water.  They may have to spend more to increase production, but they can turn around and sell water to the consumer at a profit.  The more water we use, the more money they make.  At least as long as the supply holds out.  So how does a water utility encourage conservation without shooting its own profit in the foot?

The answer increasingly is tiered rates.  El Paso, which receives 9 inches of rainfall a year, is the home of the Kay Bailey Hutchison Desalination Plant, the largest inland desalination plant in the world.  The plant takes brackish water from the Hueco-Bolson Aquifer and produces 27.5 million gallons of fresh water per day, about one fourth of El Paso’s total water use.  Unfortunately, the plant cost $87 million to build, and desalinated water costs $834 per acre-foot to produce.  To recoup those expenses, and to guide El Pasoans toward wiser water use, the city has a three tiered rate system.  The first block, which would allow ample water to all the customers who only use water inside the house or apartment, costs only $1.94/1000 gallons.  (This rate is less than we pay here in Williamson County.)  The next tier costs more, and then the third tier, which is defined as greater than 250% of the average winter usage, costs $6.50/1000 gallons.  This tiered system means that El Paso homeowners who want to indulge in lush green lawns are going to pay for the privilege.  Round Rock has also recently approved tiered water rates in which the highest tier costs $4.70/1000 gallons.

Georgetown has tiered water rates, but only when drought restrictions are in effect.  The rest of the time Georgetown water customers pay $2.25/1000 gallons.   Glenn Dishong, Georgetown’s Utility Director, would like to see year-round tiers, increasing to a marginal rate of $7.50/1000 gallons for the biggest users.  The revenue from the higher tiers would be set aside for the capital improvements such as the recent $16 million expansion of the Lake Georgetown water treatment plant; capital improvements required to cover the peak demand created by those big users watering their yards.

If tap water were more expensive, customers who enjoy lush landscapes would have a clear choice.  They can pay for the infrastructure required to provide extra potable water, or they can become more creative by using native plants, reducing turf grass coverage, and irrigating from alternative sources such as graywater and roof-collected rainwater.

Here in Williamson County, we can count on the future to bring us more neighbors and more droughts.  What the future won’t bring us is more water.  We will have to take care of that ourselves.


  1. If I had a lawn, my favorite way to water it would be to mist it into the air above my lawn at 2:00 in the afternoon.

  2. Jeff's method is Equivalent to air-conditioning
    his lawn by evaporitive cooling. Not a drop
    would ever hit the ground at average Summer high temp's.

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