City of Austin will stick with stage two water restrictions, maybe for good

The City of Austin will remain in stage two water restrictions even after the heavy rains this year and now Austin Water is suggesting the city adopt those restrictions permanently, regardless of lake levels or drought conditions.

"We're trying to learn lessons from the drought, learn lessons from history and be very cautious and keep as much water in those lakes as we can for our citizens,"  Daryl Slusher, assistant director of Environmental Affairs and Conservation.

After four long years of drought, the rain this year has replenished Lake Travis and Buchanan. So much so that lake levels and projections qualify the city to move down to stage one water restrictions, but don't expect that to happen.

"We could say, 'Oh it rained and so let's go back to stage one and the drought's over,' but we've seen it happen the other way too many times," said Slusher.

Austin water said people in the city have gotten comfortable with stage two restrictions, only watering their yards once a week.

"We have seen a lot of folks changing out their yards, putting in drought tolerant grass, drought tolerant plants and other landscapes and we would like to see that continue," Slusher said.

That's why Austin Water wants to make stage two restrictions permanent.

"We do recommend consideration of that, but we would want to have an extensive community involvement process before we would take a step like that," said Slusher.

Even though Austin has had a wet spring, the city doesn't want to risk having another dry lakebed.

"We've been in what we think is the most severe drought since the lakes were built and we want to be very conservative about going back to any stage that's going to use more water," said Slusher.

The city isn't only asking Austinites to live with less water. The Lower Colorado River Authority got an emergency order blocking the release of water to agricultural customers, most of which are rice farmers.

"The rice farmers downstream historically use about three and a half times as much water in a year as the city of Austin does," Slusher said.

"It takes about 1,000 times as much water to produce the food that a person consumes in one day than it does to provide his or her essential drinking water needs," said Ronald Gertson, chair of the Colorado Water Issues Committee and a fourth generation rice producer.

The U.S. Rice Producers Association said they did not fight the emergency order this year because they don't need the water until planting season next year, but they don't want the LCRA to make a habit out of keeping the water to themselves when the lakes are above 70 percent full.

"If they're that level or higher and LCRA still does not want to deliver water to us then we're prepared to go to battle over that," Gertson said.

Gertson said while providing water to people in Austin is most important, providing food nationwide shouldn't fall far behind.

"If all we think about is drinking water eventually we're going to get really hungry," said Gertson.

The Public Utility Committee will look into adopting permanent stage two water restrictions in Austin. There will be a chance for the public to ask questions and speak about their concerns at that time.

You can read Ott's full memo here. (pdf)