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National Wildlife Federation

No grass, no problems

Texas is in the midst of one its worst droughts ever, yet one of the more arid cities in the state is seeing no noticeable drop in its reservoirs. How is that possible? Simple: They got rid of lawns years ago.

For decades this city in far West Texas defied the look of most desert communities, with neighborhoods boasting lush, green lawns and residents freely running their sprinklers.

Then a study released in 1979 showed just how close El Paso was to a crisis: At its rate of water use, the city would run dry within 36 years.

Over the next couple of decades the city took drastic measures to stabilize its water supply, undergoing a philosophical and physical facelift that included ripping up grass from many public places, installing rock and cactus gardens and offering financial incentives for residents to do the same.

Today, El Paso is among the few cities in the drought-stricken state not worrying about water. It’s a distinction El Paso leaders attribute to a conservation plan that other cities in less arid climates such as San Antonio and Austin have tried to a limited extent amid receding water resources and booming population growth.


Over the past 20 years El Paso has paid residents a combined $11 million – $1 per square foot – to remove their grass and replace it with gravel, cement or desert plants. The city has permanent restrictions on watering days and reduced water consumption by offering special showerheads and rebates for water-efficient toilets.

The plan helped the city avoid a water crisis that other towns across West Texas now face, including the community of Robert Lee, which is rushing to find a new water source before its faucets run dry within the next several months.

Bigger cities facing diminishing water sources in less arid climates are hoping to duplicate El Paso’s success by offering money to their residents in exchange for turf.

Austin offers a $20 to $30 rebate for each 100 square feet of turf removed as part of a pilot program. So far 70 residents have replaced their grass, and the plan may become permanent if the city sees enough water savings. The city also offers up to three free water-efficient toilets per household and rebates for new dishwashers.

San Antonio offers rebates and gift certificates of up to $400 to residents who choose certain grasses, reduce their turf and cut their water consumption. Only about 360 residents have taken part since the program began in 2008, and the utility estimates savings of about 1 million gallons per year. Overall, the city estimates it can save up to a billion gallons annually from all the water-saving measures combined.

Clearly, Austin and San Antonio have a ways to go to catch up to El Paso on this front, but they do employ another effective tool for promoting water conservation, and that’s tiered pricing, in which customers that go above certain levels of usage get charged a premium. As the Austin Contrarian has repeatedly pointed out, charging the “water hogs” more both encourages conservation and helps to subsidize the more sensible among us, and it tends to be a more cost-effective policy than straight-up restrictions on use. Tiered pricing and better irrigation strategies are both central tenets of water conservation policies put forth in recent years by the National Wildlife Federation and the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club – see my posts “Drop By Drop” and “Sprayed Away” for more.

Now no one is going to argue that Houstonians should rip out their front lawns and replace them with gravel or cacti. We normally get a lot more rain than El Paso, so what works there isn’t necessarily sensible here. But there is something lawn-related we ought to be doing, and Chron gardening writer Brenda Beust Smith points it out.

It’s a proven fact. The average suburban St. Augustine lawn uses more water than all the other typically used landscape plants combined, including trees.

It’s also a fact now we have hundreds of beautiful landscape plants available that:

1 Love our heat and humidity (even this extreme cycle).

2 Require very little water.

3 Demand very little maintenance.

4 Are far more beneficial to our overall ecology than are lawn grasses.

Unfortunately, as she points out, pretty much all homeowners associations in the area make it difficult to install natives like buffalograss instead of the water-hogging St. Augustine. Sooner or later, the cities in the area are going to have to do something about that.

Two environmental issues for your attention

Are you familiar with tar sands? The Sierra Club would like to acquaint you with them this Thursday, December 16, on its Houston Frontlines tour.

Elected officials and community members will gather at Hartmann Community Center on Thursday, December 16th for a tour of industrial facilities along the Houston Ship Channel and the communities they pollute. A press conference will follow the tour, but members of the press are welcome to join the tour as well.

Juan Parras, Director of t.e.j.a.s. (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services) will be leading the East End tour that will focus on the health threats low-income Houstonians face from refining pollution and the dire consequences of increasing pollution from the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would drive a significant increase in refining of Alberta’s tar sands in the Ship Channel area. Tar sands oil contains, among other toxic metals, an average of 11 times more sulfur and nickel, six times more nitrogen, and five times more lead than conventional crude oil. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in charge of permitting the pipeline.

After the tour, local Officials will publicly call on Secretary Clinton and the State Department to conduct a full examination of the pipeline’s impact on Houston’s air quality in the form of a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement before granting approval for the project.

Lunch will be provided during the Tar Sands and Keystone XL educational seminar that begins at 12 Noon. Panelists include Clean Air Director Neil Carman, Director of t.e.j.a.s. Juan Parras, and Sierra Club Dirty Fuels Director Kate Colarulli.

Keystone XL Pipeline & Houston’s Air Quality Future
Thursday, December 16
Hartmann Community Center at Hartmann Park in Manchester
9311 E. Avenue P, 77012

The goal of this is to request a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which will guarantee that an analysis of the project’s impact on public health is completed, and that there is time for the public to respond to this new information. To learn more, go to Toxic Tar Sands: Profiles From The Front Lines. To join the tour, respond to the Facebook event.

Also of local interest this week is a TCEQ draft rule that could have a bad effect on Galveston Bay. From Texas Water Matters:

In 2007, the Texas Legislature created a process to determine how much water is needed to protect rivers and bays across the state while allowing for increased water use due to population growth. The law was hailed by environmental groups and many in the water development community as a step forward on a long-contentious issue.

Unfortunately, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality appears poised to waste this opportunity to protect our rivers and bays. TCEQ recently released a rule proposal that would allow the rivers to be reduced to a trickle and leave Galveston Bay without meaningful protection.

At risk: Galveston Bay and the Trinity and San Jacinto Rivers

In most places, TCEQ’s recommended levels would allow Trinity River flows to be reduced to levels seen only about 5% of the time in the last 50+ years. This could harm water quality and could affect the ongoing plans for restoring the Trinity in the DFW area. Low water levels could impact fish and wildlife up and down the river basins.

The shallow waters covering Galveston Bay’s 600 square miles have historically produced as much as 80% of the oysters harvested in the state. The area’s blue crab and shrimp harvests are also some of the largest in Texas. Galveston Bay is loved by recreational anglers and its shallow waters are home to Atlantic croaker, flounder, spotted seatrout, and many other species of fish. Nearly three hundred different kinds of birds have been seen in the area around Galveston Bay.

Galveston Bay’s 600 square miles is one of the most biologically diverse places in the state. Nearly three hundred different kinds of birds have been seen in the area around Galveston Bay. This natural diversity is due in large part to the freshwater flowing into Galveston Bay from the Trinity and San Jacinto rivers. If the rivers are allowed to dwindle to a trickle, Galveston Bay would be deprived of freshwater and would become increasinly salty and less hospitable to wildlife.

What You Can Do

The standards need to be strengthened in accordance with an alternate proposal submitted by the National Wildlife Federation and the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. This alternate approach is based on the work of the majority of the regional Expert Science Team, but simplified to minimize potential water supply impacts and make it easier to implement.

This alternate rule protects the rivers and bay by proposing reasonable flows of water for people and the environment.

YOU CAN HELP MAKE A DIFFERENCE. Help protect the Trinity and San Jacinto Rivers and Galveston Bay by telling TCEQ to strengthen the proposed rule by the December 20th deadline.

Comments may be submitted online here or faxed to (512) 239-4808. All comments should reference Rule Project Number 2007-049-298-OW.

There will also be a public hearing on this in Austin on the 16th at 10 AM at TCEQ headquarters, Building E, Room 201S. This is on I-35 between Braker and Yager Lanes – see here for a map and directions. For more information on this issue, see this Chron story, this Galveston Daily News editorial, and this National Wildlife Federation fact sheet. You can also easily leave your public comment online. Please do so by the 20th if you want to be heard by the TCEQ.

“Sprayed Away”

A couple of months ago, I blogged about a report on water conservation from the National Wildlife Federation and the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. Last week, they came out with a new report, on outdoor water usage and how the demands of summertime increase water consumption in 18 Texas cities, mostly due to things like watering the lawn. From the report:

The report calculates that if these 18 cities achieved just a twenty-five percent reduction in outdoor water use, they could save, collectively, an average of 147 million gallons every day during the summer. The Texas Water Development Board has estimated that about half of the water we use on our landscapes is wasted due to overwatering or runoff. Reducing summer peak usage can also save millions of dollars in treatment costs.

“The potential for easy savings during the summertime is simply staggering,”said Lacey McCormick, Communications Manager with the National Wildlife Federation. “We can have attractive landscapes without watering during the heat of the day, watering our lawns three times a week, or running our sprinklers during the rain. There’s a big opportunity here to save money while protecting our supplies of drinking water.”


The report recommends seven efficiency measures that have a proven track report at reducing landscaping water use. The measures include:

Improving Automatic Irrigation Systems: Irrigation systems are becoming increasingly common in Texas. The American Water Works Association estimates that homes with in-ground irrigation systems use 35% more water than homes without irrigation systems. Many of these systems are not designed or installed correctly-staff at the Austin Water Utility report water waste of 20% to 50% from poor system design. The report recommends that cities should take steps to make sure that these systems are as efficient as possible by offering free system audits and rebates on upgrades such as rain sensors.

Rethinking the Lawn: Over the past five years, permits for close to 600,000 new single family homes have been issued in Texas. Decisions made today about the types of lawns and landscapes to install in new developments have the potential to influence water use for decades to come. Smaller areas of turfgrass and the use of drought-resistant grasses can make a big contribution to reducing water use. Unfortunately, with only a few notable exceptions, Texas cities are currently doing little to guide new developments in this way.

Landscaping Rebates: Cities across the country have created programs paying customers to replace their turfgrass with more water-efficient landscaping. These programs are becoming more common in Texas, with entities such as the City of Pflugerville, San Antonio Water System and BexarMet Water District offering rebate programs. To ensure that customers learn new watering habits, the report recommends that utilities should make payment of rebates contingent on customers actually reducing their water use.

Rainwater Harvesting: Capturing rainwater has real potential as a source of water for Texas. A report published by the Texas Water Development Board estimated that a metropolitan area the size of Dallas could capture roughly 2 billion gallons of water annually if just 10 percent of the roof area was used to harvest rainwater. Although several Texas cities currently offer rebates on rain barrels, this source of water is currently seriously underutilized.

Rate Structures: A strongly tiered rate structure is the most equitable way to price water. Most residential customers use limited amounts of water, placing smaller demands on the system, and should pay less per unit of water as a result. For example, the San Antonio Water System has found that about 80% of their residential customers do not see any significant rise in their bills during the summertime. This indicates that the 30% bump in total water use that San Antonio sees during the summertime is primarily caused by a small portion of the utility’s customers. However, heavy users in most cities usually pay little more-and often less-per thousand gallons than frugal water users.

The full report is here (PDF), and it’s worth your time to read. Remember that regardless of what a city’s average daily water usage is, it has to build infrastructure – treatment plants, pipelines, etc – based on peak usage. Shaving even a bit off that peak can mean the difference between having to spent millions to build and operate another plant, or having to build a larger and more expensive plant, and not having to do so. A little bit of conservation can mean a lot of savings.

Here in Houston, where we are blessed/cursed with generally abundant rainfall, our summer usage only increases by about 14% over winter. Of course, our water rates just went up by 30%, so the potential for savings here is just as great. And on an absolute scale, even though Houston’s consumption rate only increases a little, our total usage increase is among the highest just because we have the most people. As such, if we all trimmed back a bit, the cumulative effect would be large.

The Texas Partnership for Children in Nature

The National Wildlife Federation was in town this weekend for a summit to advance a national policy agenda to connect children with the outdoors. Basically, kids spend a lot less time outside these days, and there are measurable effects of this change in behavior. For example, from the Be Out There web page:

Children who play outside are more physically active, more creative in their play, less aggressive and show better concentration. (Burdette and Whitaker, 2005; Ginsburg et al., 2007)

Sixty minutes of daily unstructured free play is essential to children’s physical and mental health. (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2008)

The most direct route to caring for the environment as an adult is participating in “wild nature activities” before the age of 11. (Wells and Lekies, 2006)

There’s a lot more information available at This is something I struggle with, as I’m not much of an outdoorsman. I want to encourage healthy behaviors in my kids, though, and the best way to do that is by example, so I try to do what I can. Anyway, part of this movement is policy-oriented, as there are many things that can be done at the state and federal level to positively affect children’s daily lives. To get a feel for some of that, I had a brief conversation with Allen Cooper, who has been working for the past 18 months to help establish the Texas Partnership for Children in Nature. The Partnership was formed at the request of a bipartisan group of state legislators by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Texas Department of Agriculture, the Texas Department of State Health Services, and the Texas Education Agency. Right now this partnership is working on a strategic plan to bring nature experiences into the daily lives of the 6.7 million children in Texas. Here’s what we talked about:

Download the MP3 file

The Partnership will be presenting its report in December, just in time for the next legislative session. I’ll be watching to see what they come up with.

“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.