Also in 2007, Austin Water began strengthening its conservation programs, deploying an array of strategies including mandatory watering restrictions year-round, best-practice water rebate and incentive programs, and the expansion of reclaimed water infrastructure. The timing proved to be fortuitous as the next year marked the beginning of an historic seven-year drought. Austin Water turned to its Drought Contingency Plan, which put in place even stronger measures including limiting outdoor watering to one-day-per-week. The Highland Lakes (the impounded Colorado River), which serve as Austin’s water supply as well as the supply for many other Central Texas communities – dropped to a third of its capacity. Without Austin’s conservation efforts the lakes would have dropped below 30%, which is considered the emergency level. The drought finally broke in 2015 with major flooding, as many climate models predict.
In response to the impacts of this epic drought, in 2014 the Austin City Council created the Integrated Water Resource Planning Task force to evaluate the City’s future water needs and to make recommendations regarding potential water resource management scenarios. Among the key recommendations of this task force was for Austin Water to undertake a comprehensive Integrated Water Resource Plan.
According to a 2010 Water Utility Climate Alliance White Paper, “Climate change is challenging the way water utilities plan for the future. Observed warming and climate model projections now call into question the stability of future water quantity and quality. As water utilities grapple with preparing for the large range of possible climate change impacts, many are searching for new planning techniques to help them better prepare for a different, more uncertain, future.” (Decision Support Planning Methods: Incorporating Climate Change Uncertainties into Water Planning, 2010)
In 2015 Austin Water embarked upon a multi-year, collaborative planning process, Water Forward, to develop a suite of potential demand- and supply-side options to address the City’s future water needs 100 years into the future. The goal is to ensure a diversified, sustainable, and resilient water future with a strong emphasis on water conservation. This collaboration includes many city departments and is supported by a task force of subject matter experts appointed by the Mayor and City Council.
Conventional water utility planning is usually based on historic climate conditions that cannot predict the possibilities of a changing climate; nor do they typically contemplate multiple climate scenarios. For Water Forward, AW engaged the expertise of atmospheric scientist and climatologist, Dr. Katherine Hayhoe, to integrate climate scenarios to inform water availability modeling and to identify potential infrastructure vulnerabilities as the result of the effects of a changing climate.
This innovative planning effort offers a holistic and inclusive approach to water resource planning, with a robust series of community engagement meetings held throughout the city to ensure a broad and diverse cross-section of stakeholders and meaningful opportunities for community input.
In addition, Austin Water has been focusing on resilience and adaptation strategies for operations and infrastructure. Using the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Climate Resilience Evaluation and Awareness Tool (CREAT), we have performed evaluations of the potential impacts of heat and drought on the utility’s infrastructure, operations and personnel, and in 2014 the City Council directed the city manager to develop cost estimates and a timeframe for conducting detailed climate vulnerability assessments for Austin Energy, Austin Water, Watershed Protection, and Parks and Recreation Departments. Austin Water and Austin Energy have been engaged over the past year in a Critical Infrastructure Vulnerability Assessment coordinated by our Office of Sustainability utilizing the US Department of Transportation Vulnerability Assessment Scoring Tool (VAST). In addition, AW staff continues to work closely with other city departments to collaboratively identify strategies to enhance resilience to the potential impacts of climate change.