Austin City Council Passes Water Forward, Moves to Implementation Phase

Austin skyline / photo: (CC BY-NC 2.0)

At the urging of Clean Water Action and others, the Austin City Council approved a plan to meet the city's water supply needs for the next 100 years. Called Water Forward, the plan is the result of a nearly four-year long process led by the council-appointed Water Forward Task force, which took input from experts from across the world.

The Water Forward process began in response to a letter to city council from Clean Water Action and our allies in 2014. The letter protested rumored plans to import vast amounts of water from aquifers to the east without first considering other, more sustainable options closer to home. Taking advantage of local water supplies is much more protective of the environment – and people's pocketbooks-- than piping in water from other communities.

Water Forward will help assure that Austin has a safe, affordable and sufficient water supply to survive prolonged drought and meet the needs of a growing population for decades to come. It will also help avoid water quality 'upsets' like the October 2018 incident that forced the city to issue its first-ever boil water notice. And it will do this by relying on local sources of water, rather than on the expensive, controversial and energy-intensive importation of water from beyond the city.

Key elements of Water Forward include:

  • Increased conservation. Existing rebate programs will be retained and expanded, while new programs, such as limiting the kind of landscapes that can be installed in new developments to native and drought-tolerant varieties, will be phased in.
  • Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR). ASR will draw water from the Colorado River during wet periods and store it underground for retrieval during drought or water quality upsets. Reservoirs along the Colorado River lose massive amounts of water to evaporation in a typical summer. Water stored underground is not subject to these losses.
  • Expanded use of reclaimed water. 'Reclaimed water' is treated sewage that is piped back into the city through purple pipes to serve non-potable needs like irrigating parks, serving as cooling water in chillers, flushing toilets, etc. Austin has started to develop its reclaimed water system. Care must be taken to assure that enough water is returned to the Colorado River to sustain downstream habitat and meet the needs of other downstream users. For this reason, especially during drought, reclaimed water may sometimes be in short supply or unavailable.
  • Designing new buildings to capture and use water onsite. This is perhaps the most ambitious and exciting piece of Water Forward. Water streams now viewed as 'nuisances' to be moved 'away' can be harvested onsite to serve the non-potable needs of the properties that create them. These water streams include air conditioning condensate, greywater, rainwater captured from roofs, stormwater runoff captured from pavement, and even blackwater (sewage) that is treated onsite. New buildings can be dual-plumbed with both potable and non-potable lines to enable the use of these 'alternative' water sources onsite and even in adjacent buildings.

These techniques are already in use in other cities and even in Austin. The new downtown public library is capturing AC condensate and rainwater to irrigate, flush toilets and serve as cooling water for chillers. The new Travis County Courthouse will also do this, and its system is expected to pay for itself within 13 years and save taxpayers more than $100,000 each year after that. Austin continues to add new buildings at a rapid pace, especially along major streets, and each new building that fails to incorporate these techniques is a missed opportunity. The City Council should direct the Austin Water Utility to accelerate the exploitation of alternative water sources by incorporating it into buildings of less than 100,000 sq ft as soon as possible.

With Water Forward, Austin will become the only large and growing city in the nation not seeking to meet projected needs by taking water from other communities. The plan is visionary in its reliance on local sources of water, and on its emphasis on using growth itself – in the form of re-thinking the design of new buildings -- as a source of new water. 

The council also gave direction to the staff of Austin Water Utility to accelerate the timeline for implementation of the plan, as Clean Water Action and others advocated for. The Water Quality Task Force will be re-instituted and likely meet quarterly. Clean Water Action will continue to work with the task force, city council, and our members to assure that Water Forward is implemented 

You can read the full Water Forward Plan here.