25 July 2009

Water Ration

I learned recently that the average water use for a household in Sun City, a suburban neighborhood for retirees near Georgetown, Texas, is 10,000 gallons per month. Yes, that's an exclamation point. Most of these houses are lived in by two people only, and some large percent of the houses are not inhabited in the summer, as the retirees flock north and west to escape the heat.

So, one can surmise that the 10,000 gallons of water per month is largely going to keep lawns green and pools, not to showers and laundry. And since it’s an average, that means that some households are using much less and much more. Sun City says that their extensive golf courses use reclaimed water, so they get a pass on that. But they apparently make up 25% of the population of Georgetown and use almost 50% of the town’s water.

I imagine that these numbers are generally representative of most of the Austin area, which sprawls out endlessly around the urban core with single-family housing. And I also imagine that many HOAs (home owner associations) actually force people to keep their lawns well watered by requiring them to stay green and manicured.

Now. We are in a MASSIVE drought in Central Texas. Lake Travis, the drinking water for the City of Austin, is 31 feet down. It’s losing more each week. Before long, the lake could again look like the Colorado River from which it came.

From the Statesman:
When full, the combined storage of Lakes Travis and Buchanan is a little over 2 million acre-feet; by August it is expected to dip below 900,000 acre-feet. An acre-foot equals 325,851 gallons, or roughly the amount of water required to cover a football field one foot deep.

Should the combined storage drop below 600,000 acre-feet and other triggers are reached that make this drought worse than the record drought, the LCRA can curtail water across the board on a proportional basis, as laid out in its state-approved water management plan, said Mark Jordan, who manages the LCRA's river management division.

If current drought conditions persist, there's about a 50 percent chance that by August 2010, the lakes' supplies will drop below 600,000 acre-feet, Jordan said.
And what are we doing about it as a city? Pretty much nothing, from what I can tell.

The only restrictions I’m aware of are that we have to water only on the days when we are supposed to. Even-numbered houses can water on Thursday and Sunday assigned days from 7 p.m. time to 10 a.m. and odd-numbered houses can water on Wednesday or Saturday. So, we are still allowed to water, just maybe not so much and during night hours. By the way, the nighttime watering thing is supposed to decrease evaporation, but the nights are still like 95 degrees, so…

I’m actually all for increasing restrictions if it means it saves our drinking water and ecosystems, but I also realize that we can’t ban all watering. Keeping some plants alive is important. So, here’s a breakdown of plant types and where I think they fall on the scale if we were indeed forced to truly restrict our water use.
  • Trees. These absolutely must receive water. They shade our houses and streets, reducing the urba heat island effect and decreasing our need for air conditioning. They also provide critical habitat for wildlife.
  • Lawns. No way. Lawns do nothing but suck up resources, from herbicides and pesticides to water. They do nothing for wildlife. Yes, they have their benefits, but when faced with massive, life-altering drought, lawns must go.
  • Perennials. I’m afraid these might need to go the way of the lawns, even though they provide habitat and food for wildlife. If the perennials in question need supplemental water, they probably won’t make the cut. (I’ve been making a mental list of perennials that are doing great this summer, and will definitely turn to them for future plantings.)
  • Vegetables and fruits for the home garden. These also must receive water. We can depend on home gardens for survival. The plants we grow for food are essential.
  • Vegetables and fruits for the commercial market. This one is a bit trickier. I think there would need to be decisions made about whether the grove or crop in question was critical for survival. Peaches? Sadly, probably not. Pecans? Actually, these are a great source of protein and fat. So, maybe so.

Well, it’s just a thing to think about really.

Now, here’s my full disclosure: this July, my household water use was 4,700 gallons. Our average water use for 2009 is 3300 gallons per month. These numbers would obviously change if we weren’t in a drought. Ah, the irony.

That is an incredible amount of water, and we are pretty darn restrictive and consider our garden to be relatively environmentally friendly. There’s just two of us in the household. We use water-saving drip irrigation system for the part of the garden we water. We have rain barrels.

I’m clearly going to have to pump up the xeriscape quotient. And here's hoping for some rain, so that we don't have to make any tough decisions about water...


luksky said...

I have been living in the Austin area for almost two years and have seen it actually RAIN two or three times! I agree totally with your analysis....I hate to lose my vegetation but when in a crisis it's time to buckle down. Maybe we all need to get out and do a rain dance.

Bob said...

It's scary as hell, isn't it? I am on a well and am scared it will go out---again. I have just bought eight 3000 gallon water tanks for a bigger rain water collection system and am in the process of getting it all hooked up. I sold my 5000 gallon tank in the spring and had some rain after but had no tanks to catch it in. If they ever get filled up I shouldn't need to be as concerned as bad.

Red Hen said...

Your comment on our water usage was well-thought out.

You're right about the Home Owner Associations.--They still expect the grass to be a lush green, even in drought conditions. I know of two examples personally. I'd post the gallons of water I used last month, but I had a huge water leak when I was not at home (toilet line burst) and water was gushing for hours.

I'm trying my best to conserve, but it's not always easy. I hand-water everything. I have rain tanks and barrels. I use gray water and black water (where allowed). I also don't water what passes for my lawn.

I wish more people would recycle their water. Our great-grandparents did.

TexasDeb said...

Well said. Perhaps folks who have water use above a certain level could be visited by city reps to discuss rain barrel installations and xeric alternatives. Education is the best first line of defense.

Also - folks who go elsewhere for the summer perhaps should have to turn control of their automatic systems over to city supervision?

I agree this is something we need to get serious about, and soon.

Diana said...

Lee -- after last month's water bill, things are coming to a screeching halt at my house. Perennials will just need to toughen up around here. I hand water a lot, and in this heat I don't spend too long doing it, so I don't think I'm using too much water for that. And the veggies will keep getting water. Scary, isn't it?

greg c said...

I'm not so sure that trees are "must have" for any one drought--surely any decent native tree has evolved to be able to survive that kind of thing. Plus, at this point, "sustainability," including preserving our ecosystems, has to mean preparing for tomorrow's ecology, not yesterday's, based on the climate change that we've already locked in.

I don't know where that puts us. I think your approach to your perennials is a good one.

greg c said...

That first sentence should say "must water," not "must have."

Lee said...

As far as native trees go in the drought survival game, I think it probably depends on their age and type. Some are better at withstanding long droughts, but some aren't. And most young trees are vulnerable, native or not. Of course, the beauty of genetic diversity, evolution and environmental variability is that some survive drought, passing on their genes, while others don't.

I've been thinking a lot about preparing for "tomorrow's ecology" (I like the way you phrased that). That's definitely worth some more posting...

Lee said...

I wish there were better ways to use gray and black water, but that's hard. We need to integrate that better into our water systems.

I also think that, like Bob, we all need huge water tanks for collecting rain. Even in the city. I can't wait until I can afford to install a nice big one with a pump sun off solar...

Nancy said...

We've started collecting our grey water from our showers and baths and are taking it out bucket by bucket to water our bushes which add shade to our windows and cut down our electricity. I've never watered the grass in the summer and it does add a bit of crunch to our forays to the compost. we maintain water for birds and small mammals as well as increasing birdseed. The compost also gets visits from critters.