Jack Z. Smith Special Projects Reporter Fort Worth Business Press
A master gardener, Jessica McCraw is doing her part for water conservation. The water that the retired Texas Christian University economics professor collects in a 55-gallon rain barrel nurtures the blackberries and asparagus she grows at her home in the Tanglewood neighborhood in Fort Worth. She bought the barrel through a city conservation program. With watering restrictions in place because of dry conditions, “it just makes sense to capture the rainwater and use it,” McCraw said. McCraw exemplifies a growing movement to ramp up water conservation. State Comptroller Susan Combs issued a report Jan. 14 calling for expanded water conservation throughout drought-plagued Texas. On the local front, the Tarrant Regional Water District (TRWD), a major supplier of raw water to North Texas, is banking heavily on conservation to help meet long-term water demand, which is projected to double over the next 50 years as the population explodes at a similar pace. The TRWD’s new Strategic Water Conservation Plan outlines numerous potential conservation measures, including stronger outdoor watering restrictions; development of a model landscaping ordinance designed to curb water usage; expanded re-use of nonpotable water for purposes such as irrigating golf courses or serving industrial and commercial cooling towers; and incentives for consumers to buy toilets and clothes washers that use less water. TRWD officials hope cities will adopt many of these proposals. Fort Worth-based TRWD says heightened water conservation makes great economic sense because it can reduce or greatly delay enormous capital costs to secure expensive new water supplies, which in future decades might come from sources such as the Toledo Bend Reservoir on the Texas-Louisiana border or the proposed Marvin Nichols Reservoir in northeast Texas, both far from Tarrant County. Conservation increasingly is “a supply strategy for the water district,” said Linda Christie, TRWD’s community and government relations director, in an interview with the Fort Worth Business Press. Conservation is “the cheapest source of water we’ll ever have,” she said. “We cannot develop water as cheaply as we can save water.”
Conservation cost The combined cost to the TRWD and its biggest customer, the city of Fort Worth, for water conservation is estimated at 36 cents per 1,000 gallons of water saved. But the estimated cost of securing water from Toledo Bend is $3.50 per 1,000 gallons, or nearly 10 times as high, Christie said, citing data in a 2011 regional water plan. The water district wants to accelerate conservation and extend existing water supplies as far as possible because that “delays the next big water-supply project we have to come up with,” she said. She cautiously adds that some big projects could still be needed in coming decades as the population served by TRWD is projected to double, from 1.67 million in 2010 to 3.37 million in 2060. The 2011 regional water plan estimated that TRWD would incur huge capital costs totaling more than $4.7 billion to secure water from Toledo Bend, the Nichols reservoir and Oklahoma. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2013 thwarted efforts to get water from several Oklahoma river basins. TRWD officials were surprised and elated to find that water demand in 2013 fell 8 to 10 percent below projected levels, despite continued drought and high summer temperatures. They credit the decline largely to a single action – limiting outdoor watering at homes, businesses and other properties to no more than twice a week during Stage One drought conditions. The restriction took effect June 3 and remains in place, but it could be lifted if rainfall raises water levels in TRWD reservoirs. The TRWD estimates that the restriction, along with other conservation measures, reduced water usage in 2013 by 95,000 acre-feet, or nearly 85 million gallons, per day – roughly equal to the combined output of the district’s two western reservoirs, Lake Bridgeport and Eagle Mountain Lake. (An acre-foot is equivalent to an acre of water one-foot deep, or 325,851 gallons). Water usage in June through September 2013 was down 22.3 percent from the corresponding period in 2011, which saw a very hot and dry summer. That year, the limit on outdoor watering to twice a week wasn’t put in place until Aug. 29, resulting in a smaller conservation impact than in 2013, when the regulation was in place all summer, Christie said.
Twice-a-week The TRWD wants Fort Worth and other cities to make the twice-a-week restriction mandatory year-round, converting it into a permanent conservation strategy rather than a tool employed only during drought. A TRWD analysis showed that there were only six weeks in 2013 when conditions justified watering lawns twice a week. There were 13 weeks when one watering was adequate and 33 weeks with no need to water. Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, in a telephone interview with the Business Press, said she strongly favors making the twice-a-week watering restriction a year-round conservation measure and would like to see the City Council take up the issue “in the next few months.” Fast-growing Fort Worth, the nation’s 16th largest city with a population estimated at 777,992 in 2012, must embrace conservation to ensure that “our kids and grandkids” have enough water, Price said. “I think there’s a bigger push for water conservation than there was even two or three years ago,” she said. “The depth of this drought has made people wake up.” If Fort Worth adopts the permanent watering restriction, its 30 wholesale water customers – mainly smaller cities in Tarrant County – also would have to implement it under their contracts with Fort Worth, city water spokeswoman Mary Gugliuzza said. Christie said TRWD wants to focus on outdoor watering because 50 to 70 percent of the water that TRWD supplies in the summer is used for that purpose. Mark Olson, TRWD conservation and creative manager, said conservation measures reduced water use an estimated 40.3 million gallons per day from 2007 through 2013. Olson said conservation savings soared to an estimated 84.8 million gallons per day in 2013. He said the district pumps about 200 million to 550 million gallons of water per day, with output low in winter and high in summer. Water usage also has declined in recent years as Fort Worth and other cities adopted a tiered pricing system for retail water rates, with water costing more per gallon at high consumption levels. Tiered systems are becoming “pretty prevalent,” said John Sutton, a Texas Water Development Board official who is focused on municipal water conservation. Residential cost Fort Worth charges residential customers $1.97 per 100 cubic feet (ccf) of water (a ccf equals 748.1 gallons) for the first 800 cubic feet used in a month. The rate rises to $2.80 per ccf for consumption between 800 and 2,000 cubic feet; $3.55 between 2,000 and 3,000 cubic feet; and $4.40 above 3,000 cubic feet. The rate more than doubles from the lowest to highest tiers, a policy that can encourage greater conservation efforts by heavy water users hit with hefty monthly bills. Increased conservation has caused the Fort Worth Water Department concern because it lowers revenue from water sales. But expanded conservation also could reduce or delay the need for costly future TRWD water-supply projects that could require it to continue raising the raw-water rates it charges to its four primary customers: Fort Worth, Arlington, Mansfield and the Trinity River Authority.
Those higher raw-water rates put pressure on cities to raise their retail water rates, as Fort Worth did effective Jan. 1 in response to TRWD hiking its rates to help pay its $1.4 billion cost to participate with Dallas Water Utilities in the massive $2.34 billion Integrated Pipeline (IPL) Project. The new 149-mile pipeline will allow the TRWD to increase by 52 percent, or 197 million gallons per day, the volume of water it can transport to Tarrant County from its two biggest water sources, the Richland-Chambers and Cedar Creek reservoirs. The IPL project is projected to raise TRWD’s raw-water rates by an overall average of 11 percent annually from 2009 to 2020, with the increase averaging 8 percent per year from 2009 to 2014. As the state and TRWD push for greater water conservation, Fort Worth residents such as Sall-Ann Sauer have quietly embarked on their own water-saving initiatives. Two years ago, Sauer, a manager for an insurance company consumer help desk, received two new high-efficiency toilets via a city conservation program. She got the toilets free but paid for installing them in her home in the Westcliff neighborhood. A new high-efficiency toilet uses 1.28 gallons of water for a full flush, while an average older toilet uses 3.5 gallons, which means a high-efficiency toilet flushed 15 times a day saves 12,154 gallons of water in a year, city water spokeswoman Gugliuzza said, citing an analysis by the American Water Works Association. Sauer said her primary purpose in getting the new toilets wasn’t to lower her water bill. “I think it’s the responsible thing to do,” she said. “I do think water conservation is important. I use the water I need, but no more.”