“Drop by drop”

We’ve talked a lot about flooding and drainage issues, and about the possibility of water rate increases in Houston, but something that has not gotten a lot of attention is water conservation. I want to call your attention to a new report that examines this in detail.

The National Wildlife Federation and the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club released a joint report today recommending seven common-sense water conservation measures. The report reviews 19 cities around the state to see where these measures are in place and concludes that, with some exceptions, most of the cities surveyed are not doing enough to make the most efficient use of existing water supplies.

“The best and cheapest source of water is the one that’s already on tap,” said Ken Kramer, state director of the Sierra Club. “The key measure of success for any water conservation program is reducing water use on a per person basis and we recognize that takes time. In this report, we looked at some measures cities can be using right now to see if they are moving in the right direction. Our review makes it clear that while a handful of cities are working to maximize their water-use efficiency, most cities are doing little to make the best use of existing water supplies.”

Water conservation is a lot like energy conservation in that it’s not only a good idea, it’s also likely to save you a bunch of money in the long term. There are a number of ways that a city can do that, and some cities in Texas – particularly Austin and San Antonio, which get a lot less rain than Houston – are already aggressively pursuing them.

The report describes and recommends seven efficiency measures that have a proven track report at reducing water use. The cities surveyed were rated on several of those measures. The measures include:

Water Pricing Structure: The report recommends a strongly tiered rate structure with affordable prices for those who use water efficiently and effectively higher water rates for customers who use excessive amounts of water. Austin was the only city whose residential use pricing structure earned a “Strong” rating, while Beaumont, Lubbock and Plano all had rate structures that, when assessed as an effective rate, offered significant discounts for high users, thereby encouraging wasteful water use.

Water Savings Goals: Texas cities are required to create conservation plans with five- and ten-year water use reduction goals, however many cities set easily-achievable but not very impressive targets. Dallas, for example, had the highest rate of per capita water use in our review and committed to just a modest reduction. On the other hand, San Antonio-which has already achieved impressive reductions in per capita water use-committed to continued reductions.

Toilet Replacement: New high-efficiency toilets can save 12,000 gallons annually over older models, but only six cities in the review had active programs encouraging the replacement of inefficient toilets.

Conservation Funding: Most of Texas’s biggest cities now have reasonably well-funded conservation departments. The city of Houston was the only major city in the state without a conservation department or any significant specific funding for conservation.

Outdoor Watering: In Texas, a significant amount of treated drinking water is used for watering lawns. The Texas Water Development Board estimates that over half this water is wasted due to overwatering or run-off. Only two cities in our survey-El Paso and Austin-had “Strong” outdoor watering ordinances while ten cities placed no restrictions at all on outdoor watering.

The full report is here, and I highly recommend it. Since water rates are on people’s minds here, let me quote a bit from that:

[T]iered pricing systems can be effective at lowering water use because a large portion of a city’s water supply is used by a fairly small percentage of the population. The City of Albuquerque has found that half of its households use, on average, three times as much water as the other half.

A relatively small handful of users is exceptionally profligate with water and these individuals are largely insensitive to water prices as they are currently set. In 2008, the top ten water users in the city of Dallas collectively used an astonishing 60 million gallons of water. An earlier 2003 National Wildlife Federation analysis of the Dallas Water Utility’s residential accounts shows that the top 5% of water users in that city used over 25% percent of its water.


In November 2009, the Austin Water Utility implemented sharply rising rates, with a top tier of $10 per thousand gallons for those who use more than 25,000 gallons a month. These rates are significantly higher than top tier rates in most Texas cities. The average Austin household uses around 8,500 gallons of water a month and would not be affected by the highest rates. The Austin Water Utility has low-to-average rates for more frugal water users.

Additional revenues from a city’s top rates can be used as a dedicated funding source for a utility’s water conservation programs. More than half the revenue from Albuquerque’s summer excessive use surcharge is allocated to its water conservation program. Much of this funding is returned to Albuquerque residents through rebates and other incentives. The San Antonio Water System has a similar program, devoting nine cents per 100 gallons of the cities’ top water rate to the help fund residential water conservation program.

If the city of Houston does nothing else, I hope it follows Austin’s model for pricing water usage. As the report notes, there is a lot that Houston can do to promote conservation. I know the city is looking at a big revenue shortfall right now, but there really isn’t a better time than this to pursue some of these ideas. At the very least, a more tiered structure for water rates would bring in more cash and would do it by making the heaviest users pay the most. Done right, it’s likely that relatively few people would see any kind of increase, and it would provide funds for further conservation efforts, which in turn will be a net savings for the city. Read the report and see what you think. The Star-Telegram and Forrest Wilder have more, while SciGuy delves into a somewhat related topic.

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10 Responses to “Drop by drop”

  1. Appetitus Rationi Pareat says:

    It simply common sense to increase the rate charged per unit of water used as the user surpasses a certain level. Some of the people in the brubs are going to grumble about their pools but, frankly, they should be paying more for such a luxury.

    Finally, the fact that Houston doesn’t even have a conservation department or something similar is yet more evidence that despite the numbers, Houston is not a serious “major city” in this country. I’m embarrassed to say I live here.

  2. Mike says:

    I’m all for a tiered plan but I hope it’d take into account multiple users on one account. Like many other townhouse developments around town, the ten townhouses in my HOA all share one account for water, and we pay it out of our HOA fees.

  3. Bob Derr says:

    T. Boone Pickens and several other wealthy Texans have been buying water rights for over 10 years, what does that tell ya? They think water could become the new oil as our population increases & more people move to Texas because of our economy. Water conservation is a must & the sooner the better! Management by crisis is no longer acceptable!

  4. James says:

    I’m with Mike, I live in a 100 plus unit condo association and we share the water cost. I would hate to billed as a huge water waster when we are by our very living structure more conservative than single unit/yard homes.

    We already get screwed by the city in that we pay the same taxes but have to contract privately to have our garbage picked up.

  5. James says:

    A little bit more about our water usage.

    We are aware of it, and after last years drought, we gave more attention to how we are using water.

    My research and understanding has led to the idea that less frequent, but deeper waterings of the lawn lead to deeper st. augustine root penetration and less weed seed germination. We’ve changed to less landscape water usage over all, and almost none during the dormant season.

    We’ve also had our maintenance man check the repair and direction of sprinkler heads, and apply mulch. (our landscape contractor just wasn’t paying attention).

    People living in close together and sharing green space is the most ecologically sound solution for city living, and our community is working on it, while fighting the bureaucracy of HOAs, property managers, owner complacency and contractors.

    I’d just like to be recognized for it when state and city regulations start getting proposed this time.

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