By Juijia Guo

July 3, 2019

“Never seen anything like it.” Brian Richter, a global leader in water science and conservation and the president of a global water education organization, Sustainable Waters, said after he read Austin’s new 100 year water plan1.

Austin, the capital of Texas and the 11th most-populous city in the United States2, is projected to experience ongoing rapid population growth in the coming decades. Like many other large cities, Austin has to find ways to meet increasing water demand brought on by a growing population. But unlike other cities Austin’s plan takes a forward-looking approach and is designed to benefit Austinites over the next 100 years. The Water Forward, Austin’s Integrated Water Resource Plan prepared by Austin Water approaches 100 year urban water management with a balanced strategy, incorporating multiple objectives including water reliability, social, environmental, and economic benefits, and ease of implementation3. The comprehensiveness of the plan is largely a consequence of the city’s quick response to two forthcoming threats: rising water demand resulting from population growth and changing flood and drought patterns due to climate change.

Fig.1 Cumulative inflows to Lakes Buchanan and Travis (source: Water Forward – A Water Plan for the Next 100 Years. Austin Water, 2019.)

The trigger for the birth of this water plan was the historic drought from 2008 – 2016 in Central Texas. According to Austin’s water supplier, Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), drought in the state’s Colorado River watershed during those years was the worst on record. Therefore a new integrated water resource plan was enacted to empower the city to manage risks and adapt to constantly changing conditions4. Given that uncertain drought patterns are predicted to continue due to climate change, Austin’s Water Forward, Integrated Water Resource Plan includes strategies to integrate all available sources of water and increase water use efficiency. Through decentralized lot scale reuse, decentralized community scale reuse, and a centralized reclaimed water system, “alternative waters” including rainwater, stormwater, graywater, air conditioning condensate, and wastewater will be treated and reused to meet non-drinking water demands. In the next 100 years, use of high-quality drinking water to meet non-drinking water demand such as landscape irrigation and toilet flushing will be greatly reduced. To make buildings and landscapes more water efficient, the plan proposes advanced metering infrastructure technology, enhancing Austin Water’s current water loss reduction program, expanding several existing Austin Water rebate programs, and developing benchmarks and water budgets.

In addition to new water use management strategies, Austin’s recent prolonged drought underscores the importance of storing water for extreme environmental conditions. Therefore the Water Forward plan includes multiple storage strategies such as Aquifer Storage and Recovery by 2040 and a new Off Channel Reservoir within the next fifty years to ensure water demands can be met during drought conditions.

Fig.2 Non-drinking water sources meeting non-drinking water demand over time (source: Water Forward – A Water Plan for the Next 100 Years. Austin Water, 2019.)

Apart from a wide range of innovative resource management and technical strategies, a critical component of this plan lies in public outreach and community involvement. In order to present a plan that authentically reflects the community’s values, the project team collected feedback at over 80 community events to inform the plan recommendations. Moreover, to mobilize the community to fully embrace water conservation, a variety of public education programs are recommended, including education for children and teachers about water conservation, a mobile science museum, and workshops and seminars led by Austin Water.

After a four-year preparation process, Austin’s Water Forward plan is on track to accommodate population growth without seeking water resources outside the region and enable and create a sustainable and reliable water system that is effective even in the face of climate change.