Get Ready for Brown Grass as San Antonio Nears Stage 3 Water Restrictions

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Monika MaeckleLush 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.

This can happen in San Antonio only once every two weeks when/if Stage 3 restrictions go into effect in April.

This can happen in San Antonio only once every two weeks when/if SAWS’ Stage 3 restrictions go into effect in April.

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.

SAWS Water Stages and Drought Restrictions

  • 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.

Red yucca, green sotol, agaves and other drought tolerant plants will be included in the "Garden in a Box" rebate program SAWS hopes to introduce later this spring, if the program is approved by the Board.  Courtesy photo

Red yucca, sotols, agaves and other drought tolerant plants will be included in a pilot rebate program SAWS hopes to introduce later this spring, if the program is approved by the Board. Courtesy photo

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.

Native plants like Cowpen Daisy, Jimsonweed and Texas sage are water wise and bloom all summer.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Native plants like Cowpen Daisy, Jimsonweed and Texas sage are water wise and bloom all summer. Photo by Monika Maeckle

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 or follow her on Twitter @monikam.


Related Stories:

Water: For Thirsty Lawns or Thirsty People?

San Antonio Lawn Makeover: Before Next Drought, Solarize and Say Goodbye to Water-Guzzling Grass

SAWS Education Campaign Pushes Drip Over Spray Sprinkler Systems

Water Security: Will Texas Leadership Finally Act?

‘Old Man Water’: A Longtime Observer Surveys the San Antonio Landscape

SAWS to Take Water Conservation Outside: Just Say “NO” to Automatic Water Sprinklers

The Cost of New Water:  A City That’s Outgrown its Aquifer


21 thoughts on “Get Ready for Brown Grass as San Antonio Nears Stage 3 Water Restrictions

  1. start charging those water wasters on the north side. your grass doesn’t need to be that green. you live in texas!

  2. And wake up, Homeowners’ Associations. People do not need lawns at all. There is wonderful landscaping available which eliminates grass and native plants which are drought tolerant.

  3. This is the most informative article I’ve read on this topic. Lots of new nuances and information here. Good job, Monica.

  4. I think the article remiss in not mentioning the impact of agricultural irrigation (which will begin soon, if it already hasn’t). It’s not all lawns and landscaping. Some of the drop in the Edwards is due to the food that goes into our mouths.

  5. My grass won’t be brown because… I don’t have any! But I have plenty of beautiful TX sage, roses, Mexican irises, lavender, etc. If you want a yard that looks like a golf course, move back east. If you want to live in TX, learn about all the cool stuff that grows here.

  6. Doug, agricultural pumping is mentioned later in the story and pegged as the cause of recent surges in water use. Take a look.

  7. I’m proud to say that our Property Owners Association does not prohibit grass-free yards. In fact, we encourage people to go xeric. The key is, whatever look you choose, keep it maintained. The trouble comes when some people use “xeric” as an excuse to neglect the look of their landscape, but those people are usually the exception, not the rule. Most people who go through the trouble of removing turf, take pride in the new look and keep it tidy.

  8. Gail, check out today’s story on fracking environmental costs.. Abbey, thanks for the kind words.

  9. My goodness, it’s funny that the River Walk never runs out of water. HMMMM? Is that an untouchable subject in S.A.?
    Must be. No hotel chain or Chamber of Commerce (read that: rich white guys) gives a crap about farmers or anybody’s lawns except their own. Make them pay for the water that they make millions from.

  10. Monika,

    Thanks for another very useful article for those who are paying attention-think about converting to a landscape that doesn’t need much water before the water many are used to getting on demand is no longer available.

    I thought this comment was noteworthy: “…it’s funny that the River Walk never runs out of water.”

    Some of your readers might be interested to know that the river was historically spring fed. Today, when springs such as the San Antonio Springs are not discharging adequately, San Antonio Water System (SAWS) discharges reclaimed water at several locations to provide a minimal baseflow moving through the river.

    This and many other details about how this watershed functions, and how it can be protected from pollution, can be found in the Upper San Antonio River Watershed Protection Plan.

    Viewed at:

  11. Last year, we installed a Habiturf lawn in our full exposed to the sun backyard and this mix of three Texas native grasses is designed to be green in very little rainfall. Got the seeds at D King and grew the lawn from seed – a first for me and my spouse. I am not a lover of lawns, but this section of our yard can remain lawn with the Habiturf and we get a nice clear spot from which we can enjoy the stars at night. The folks at Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center seem to have done a good job of creating a grass combo that will work in our low rainfall and in full sun. Perhaps some SAT home owners who just cannot envision switching out their lawns would consider switching their lawns to Habiturf or the similar mix available from Native American. Some of this info is on the SAWS site in the turf info. Based on that fact that we have never watered this lawn once it was established, this stuff is impressively green and lush. SAT and SAWS would still save an amazing amount of water, if 1,000 households made this same change.

  12. Two sides of my home are on a sloop. The grass has held everything in its place. Like my house hasn’t fallen or broken. What can I do once the grass is dead? I have very little funds. If I lose the grass covering then the first rain that comes my home may break due to loss of dirt. Help!! What should I do?

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