Lush green lawns will soon turn brown from drought if the Edwards Aquifer readings continue to fall. Right now we are only six feet above the trigger point of 640 feet for unprecedented Stage 3 water restrictions. Stage 3 restricts watering with automatic irrigation systems, sprinklers and soaker hoses to once every 14 days. Officials at SAWS, the city's public water utility, believe Stage 3 restrictions will be necessary by late April.
Without summer rains, it will likely get worse. San Antonio could move to Stage 4 by late June or July, when aquifer well readings are likely to fall to 630 feet. After 30 days in Stage 3, City Manager Sheryl Sculley, acting on the advice of SAWS officials, has the authority to implement Stage 4, which continues Stage 3 water use restrictions and imposes "drought surcharges" for water users exceeding recommended usage levels. City Council, meanwhile, is authorized in such circumstances, to implement "additional measures" as members see fit.
It's no mystery why San Antonio finds itself on the cusp of unprecedented water use restrictions.
A growing population, an extremely dry winter, and a third year of persistent drought have left aquifer water levels 15 feet below levels this time last year when abundant winter rains interrupted the drought cycle and replenished aquifer levels. SAWS has diversified its water supply over the last decade, but the Edwards Aquifer still supplies 90% of the city's drinking water.
Aquifer at 660 feet = Stage 1 Watering with an irrigation system, sprinkler or soaker hose allowed once a week before 10 a.m. or after 8 p.m. on your designated watering day.
Aquifer at 650 feet= Stage 2 Watering with an irrigation system, sprinkler system or soaker hose allowed once a week 7 - 11 AM or 7 - 11 PM
Aquifer at 640 feet= Stage 3 Watering with an irrigation system, sprinkler system or soaker hose allowed once every 14 days, 7 - 11 AM or 7 - 11 PM
Stage 4 = After 30 days of Stage 3, City Manager can call to enact Stage 4, which activates water use surcharges; Stage 3 restrictions continue and City Council can vote to take "additional measures"
SAWS anticipated the water shortage amid continuing drought and lower than average rainfall predictions, and has been planning accordingly. A revised water conservation ordinance and a 7% rate increase were approved by City Council on Feb. 7. The rate increase is earmarked mostly for sewer line improvements, but some of the budget is devoted to diversification of our water resources, including a $229 million brackish water desalination plant in southern Bexar County, and expanded use of the local Carrizo Aquifer.
The utility has also ramped up conservation efforts that target outdoor irrigation and automatic sprinkler systems, which can suck up to 70% of San Antonio's water, depending on the time of year. An educational push for native plants and xeric style landscaping is also in effect.
"We need people to follow the rules of Stage 2. Think about your outdoor watering, choose plants wisely for a tough summer, and be mindful of water use," said SAWS spokeswoman Ann Hayden.
This summer will be a good time to rethink the front lawn, and perhaps use solarization to convert St. Augustine to beds filled with drought tolerant plants. SAWS has an innovative pilot program in development that will provide instant rebates to those willing to convert turf to native plants using a prepackaged garden kit. The program was shared with the SAWS Community Conservation Committee at its recent meeting.
Local nurseries and some box stores will likely participate in the program, which would provide instant rebates to "help people get through the drought by making transitional changes in their yards," said Dana Nichols, SAWS conservation department manager. "If it works out and is implemented correctly, I anticipate that we'll have different landscape packages come out at different times of the year, offering different rebates."
The SAWS garden kit, coming soon, will include mulch, planting and care guides, and specific drought tolerant species such as flowering red yucca, grey and green sotol, cenizo and agaves – all plants that can endure a dry Texas summer. Those who receive kits will agree to inspections making sure they abide by the planting guidelines. SAWS trustees will vote on the program at Tuesday's board meeting.
All the planning and turf-to-bed conversions may not be enough to avoid stiff fines for SAWS and increased costs to customers in 2014, if the utility exceeds its pumping limit from the Edwards. If SAWS exceeds its allotment, penalties that could total millions of dollars will be assessed, and the costs will inevitably be passed to customers.
Barring a torrential downpour, it doesn't appear the water shortage will ease any time soon. Agricultural pumping demands can make the aquifer drop one to two feet a day. The spring pumping and planting season has just begun and invariably results in heavy water use through June. Then the long summer sets in.
In some parts of Texas, talk of "Stage 5" has begun, but it can be misleading and alarmist. Stage 5, which is regulatory language the Edwards Aquifer Authority uses to alert those pumping from the Aquifer how much water is available, doesn't apply in San Antonio because SAWS has incorporated Stage 5 into its Stage 4, said Hayden.
"Every municipality is different," she said.
Wichita Falls holds the dubious distinction as the largest Texas city that has only 180 days of water left. The North Texas community of more than 100,000 sits in Stage 3 "Drought Emergency" restriction mode at the moment, and still allows once-a-week lawn watering. There, Stage 4, termed "Drought Disaster restrictions," would ban outside watering and filling swimming pools, and could be implemented soon. Closer to home in Uvalde, the City Council there is debating the meaning of Stage 5 because an ordinance for that level does not exist. One news account suggested the town will soon face $2 million in fees for additional water rights.
While the perfect storm of drought, climate change and growing demand means uncharted waters for the City of San Antonio, SAWS is confident its water conservation and management policies will prove sufficient.
"We have the water, and even when we have the pumping cutbacks, there's still water there," Hayden said. "We have a thoughtful program in place."
Monika Maeckle writes about gardening, butterflies, conservation and the Monarch butterfly migration at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. She covers nature in the urban environment for this website and serves as a volunteer on the SAWS Community Conservation Committee. You can reach her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @monikam.