Jason Hill

In the midst of one of the worst droughts in Texas history, professors’ research on water is becoming more relevant to students who will have an opportunity in November to vote on a Texas constitutional amendment increasing water
project funding.

For the past three years, many regions in Texas have experienced drought conditions. Currently, Lakes Travis and Buchanan are 32 and 34 percent full respectively, according to the Lower
Colorado River Authority. These levels determine Austin Water Utility’s water restrictions, which have been at stage two for the majority of the past two years. There is a third stage of restrictions between stage two and emergency restrictions. Stage two water restrictions suggest that people only water their yards one day per week and restaurants not serve water unless a customer requests it.

According to the National Weather Service, Austin-Bergstrom International Airport received 28.42 inches of rain in 2010, but only 16.90 inches in 2011 — about half the yearly average of 32.79 inches. In 2012, the airport received 35.13 inches. 

In November, Texas voters will vote on Proposition 6, a Texas constitutional amendment which, if approved, would finance water projects by allocating $2 billion from the Economic Stabilization Fund, also known as the Rainy Day Fund. Projects would potentially include the construction of new pipelines and reservoirs.

Bridget Scanlon, a hydro-geologist at the Jackson School of Geosciences, said power plants use water for cooling purposes, so the lack of water presents problems for power grids — especially in the summer.

“Because the electricity system is all connected in a grid. When you have a problem at one power plant, it could impact a much larger system because it all is connected,” Scanlon said.

UT officials have reacted to the drought’s effects on electricity systems in innovative ways, said Jason Hill, Austin Water Utility senior public information officer. Earlier this year, the University began using Austin Water Utility’s reclaimed water system — which involves using water that is unsafe to drink — for cooling the electricity towers, Hill said.

Hill said it is important for people to be aware of how their individual actions impact the
water supply.

“At a university the size of UT, you have students that come from all over, and some of those places aren’t really concerned about water — Michigan for instance — so it’s great … For folks to understand the school is in an area right now that’s experiencing a drought, so every little bit helps,”
Hill said.

David Maidment, associate director at UT’s Center for Integrated Earth System Science, said the state has sufficient long-term plans to address the drought conditions, but should work on its short-term plans.

Many organizations in Texas measure water levels, but there is not a centralized source of all the water-related information,
Maidment said.

“We need to manage water like a bank account,” Maidment said. “What comes in, what goes out, what’s the current level … We need a more structured, systematic approach to this.”

Maidment said Texas leaders should learn from the way the Australian government handled its drought in the early 2000s because the two regions have comparable populations.

“[The Australian government now publishes] national water accounts each year that quantify just what the state of the water system is in critical regions of the country, and how it’s changing over time,” Maidment said. “I think we need something like that. They also built an Australian water resource information system to integrate information on water across the country … I think we need those things in Texas too.”

The low moisture levels in the soil are the most concerning part of the drought, Maidment said.

“We’re in a frail situation compared to what we were three years ago,” Maidment said. “The capacity of the state to recover is dependent on how quickly water can get into the soil and get into the groundwater system because that’s where the real deficit is … If you look at the total volume of water that Texas has lost because of drought conditions, [lake water is] only about 10 percent of it. The other 90 percent is in the soil water system and the underground
water system.”

Despite recent rainfall, Central Texas remains in a drought, with Lakes Travis and Buchanan less than half full.

Photo Credit: Shannon Kintner | Daily Texan Staff

Local authorities, environmental groups and the University continue to pursue water conservation policies even after heavy local rainfall in March.

With lakes Travis and Buchanan still less than half full, Central Texas remains in a drought, said Clara Tuma of the Lower Colorado River Authority, which provides wholesale water to the City of Austin. Austin is still under the enhanced stage two water use restrictions set by LCRA, she said.

“Enhanced stage two allows landscape watering no more than once a week,” Tuma said. “Enhanced stage two occurs when the combined storage of lakes Travis and Buchanan falls to 750,000 acre-feet or less.”

The recent rainfall raised water levels in those lakes, but it did not fall far enough west in the crucial aquifer recharge zone, said Tyson Broad of the Sierra Club.

“It appears that the rain fell in the low parts of the [Colorado River] basin, not in the major recharge area of porous limestone that helps the lakes stay up,” he said.

It is unlikely that Austin will return to the less severe stage one restriction, said Michael Frisch, the University’s senior building energy and water conservation project manager.

“It’s more likely that we will move to stage three,” he said. “There probably won’t be enough rain to warrant a move in the other direction.”

The stage three restriction, as it is currently defined by the LCRA, is not designed to address a long-term water shortage, said Jason Hill, spokesman for Austin Water.

“The stage three restriction code is intended to respond to a catastrophic event,” he said. “If stage two is not enough, the groups involved are looking to make changes to the code.”

Hill said the diminished water supply results from events in nature, not the mismanagement of resources. He said Austinites should be proud of the extent to which they have conserved water since the onset of the present-day drought.

“Stage two restrictions have been very effective in decreasing water consumption, and we applaud our customers,” he said. “If we haven’t done the best job [in implementing water conservation among other Texas cities], we’ve certainly been very competitive.”

Frisch said the University has been doing its part to reduce water use. He said a new irrigation system installed in response to the drought conserves water and reduces the University’s water bill.

“The new system measures how much water is evaporating from plants and knows how much rainfall there has been,” he said. “It also detects leaks and sends a signal to the main control system. We then deploy an irrigation technician to check out the problem.”

The improved watering system saves the University from consuming 50 million gallons of water each year because it prevents leaks and unnecessary irrigation, Frisch said. With the University paying $11 per 1000 gallons, according to Frisch, conserving that much water saves the University a significant amount of money.

Printed on Thursday, March 22, 2012 as: Conservation policies continue despite rainfall

The city may have to resort to water conservation measures intended for catastrophes if Central Texas’ drought continues, but UT will still be responsible for managing its own water usage.

City Council announced at a special work session Tuesday morning that the city is considering the possibility of stage three water restrictions beginning this spring if the drought continues to get worse, said Jason Hill, spokesman for Austin Water.

“We want to meet basically the demands of what an extreme and extended drought would call for,” Hill said. “In the books [stage three restrictions were] set up for some sort of catastrophic thing with the water supply, so we have to look at how it can be customized to protect and maintain our water supply during the slow process of this drought.”

UT doesn’t have to follow city water restrictions, Hill said.

He said under stage three restrictions, no one in the city is allowed to water lawns or other landscaping. The city of Austin went into stage two water restrictions on Sep. 6 after water levels of Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis fell below the 900,000-acre mark, he said.

“I’m not a meteorologist, but we’re still in a drought,” he said. “We haven’t had any significant improvement.”

The University purchases between 7 and 8 million gallons of water each year from the city and is one of the top ten water consumers in Austin, said Leonard Friesenhahn, associate director for mechanical distribution for UT’s Utilities & Energy Management division. The University takes domestic water and drinking water from the city and returns wastewater back to them, he said.

The most recent data on UT’s total water usage is from the 2009-10 school year, when the University used about 512.7 million gallons, said Laurie Lentz, spokeswoman for UT’s facility services.

According to facility services numbers, Central Texas last experienced a major drought during the 2006-07 school year, when water usage dropped to 427,502 gallons. Turning off the fountains saves an estimated 300,000 gallons per month, updating automatic campus irrigation systems saves an estimated 49 million gallons per year and the 2008 renovations to campus plumbing are saving an estimated 16 million gallons per year, she said.

The University is making efforts to conserve water by watering campus landscape zones only one day a week, turning off the Littlefield and LBJ fountains and installing xeriscapes, which consist of more drought resistant plants than the University’s traditional landscapes, Lentz said.

“We don’t have to abide by the city of Austin ordinances, but we typically do try to support them,” she said.

The exception to these water cutbacks is the University’s 4,500 trees, which are worth $25 million and remain under constant drip irrigation, Lentz said.

“We’re trying to use water only where water is needed,” Lentz said. “Not watering the sidewalks, things like that.”