As Texas enters a third year of drought, San Antonio Water System is bracing for the possibility that Stage III water restrictions may be activated for the first time in our city’s history as early as March. While that possibility is unlikely so early in the year, SAWS officials presented a compelling case for early and ongoing drought management preparations Wednesday to the utility’s Community Conservation Committee (CCC), an advisory group composed of citizen stakeholders.
Stage III water restrictions are considered when the Edwards Aquifer drops to 640 feet. With the Aquifer standing at 652.4 feet today, a dry winter, a persistent drought, and a water level 13 feet lower than this same time a year ago when we experienced abundant winter rains, Stage III appears inevitable. The stricter conservation measures prohibit any type of spray irrigation for entire seven-day stretches every other week – resulting in only one watering day every two weeks for homeowners.
SAWS ‘ drought team suggested that when agricultural irrigation kicks off in March, the aquifer could quickly drop dramatically. “Agricultural demand can make the aquifer drop one to two feet a day,” Steven Bereyso, Water Resources Planner for SAWS told the CCC.
A revised water conservation ordinance, adopted as part of SAWS’ 7% rate increase and approved by City Council Feb. 7, made changes in the hours that water sprinklers are allowed to be used (now 7-11 a.m. and 7-11 p.m. on your watering day in drought stages 2 through 4). San Antonio has been in Stage II Water Restrictions, which allows once-a-week watering, since April 2012.
Stage III, however, will be a new and unwelcome experience for many in San Antonio. It includes entire “off “weeks with no irrigation, said Guz, and makes enforcement easier. “If no one is supposed to be using spray irrigation, it’s very easy to identify the violaters,” she said.
Interestingly, more than 2,000 citations for water waste were issued last year. First time fines averaged $120. Because citations are municipal court violations, SAWS sees none of the money. Collected fines are returned to City coffers and “much of it is returned to the State,” said Guz. Perhaps those funds could be redirected to water conservation education and outreach through a City Council vote?
More than 600 Texas communities are experiencing mandatory water restrictions, and 21 communities face the possibility of running out of water entirely within 180 days, according to state figures. San Antonians don’t face such dire straits, SAWS officials assured the group. “What’s our worry?” asked Guz. “We have to cut back on lawn watering. That’s our worry.”
Guz and her team plan to seize on the teachable moment of our extended drought by encouraging a change of habits toward landscaping and irrigation. Embracing low-water-use landscaping and taking a more critical approach to often wasteful and poorly maintained or programmed automatic sprinkler systems hold huge possibilities for water conservation. Landscape irrigation consume 30 – 70% of our water, depending on the time of year.
SAWS water education programs are already underway to apply the same kind of public outreach used so effectively for indoor water conservation over the last decade.
Back in 1994, SAWS used fixture giveaways and rebates to install more than 300,000 water-saving toilets through its lauded Kick the Can low-flush toilet replacement program. The replacement toilets have saved millions of gallons of water from being needlessly flushed and use half the water of less efficient models.
The same awareness campaign now will address outdoor water conservation. Rebates and incentive programs are underway for making systems more efficient. SAWS makes six fulltime consultants available to help homeowners control their often complicated sprinkler system controllers. The popular program has a two-week wait list for appointments and conducts 150 visits per week, as technicians work with homeowners to evaluate their zones and set up systems for maximum efficiency.
As homeowners and developers gear up for spring planting season in yards and gardens around town, heeding a frugal approach to water use would be well advised. For help in choosing appropriate plants for your garden, see SAWS recommended plant list .
Monika Maeckle writes about gardening, butterflies, conservation and the Monarch butterfly migration at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @monikam.