By Robert Rivard

The Edwards Aquifer fell below 640 feet Wednesday, the bellweather measure that requires city officials to consider  Stage III restrictions, which limit landscape irrigation to a single day once every other week.

The J-17 well at Fort Sam Houston, which is used for monitoring aquifer levels, fell from 640.3 on Tuesday to 639.9 on Wednesday.

Stage III restrictions, however, do not go into effect automatically. The city’s water conservation ordinance allows SAWS officials to recommend to City Manager Sheryl Sculley the alternative option of pumping reserve supplies of water to augment aquifer pumping and leave the less draconian Stage II water restrictions in effect, which allow for weekly landscape irrigation on a single designated day.

SAWS officials call that choice, “the ‘or’ clause” in the ordinance. It’s expected that Sculley will follow the water utility’s recommendation, but City Council was meeting in its customary B Session on Wednesday and the city manager was not immediately available for comment.

The SAWS aquifer management team meets weekly during times of drought to analyze aquifer levels, fluctuation patterns, and to gauge water demand and likely precipitation, among other factors. One week ago, that committee’s assessment of falling aquifer levels — weighed against the late summer date, anticipated fall rains and reduced pumping demand — led SAWS CEO Robert Puente Jr. to send a letter to Sculley recommending that Stage III restrictions not be implemented at this time.

“For now, our diverse portfolio of water supplies and the water smart ways of San Antonians enable us to delay Stage Three restrictions,” said Robert R. Puente, SAWS President/CEO. “With this delay, we hope to provide time for weather conditions to improve as we get closer to cooler, wetter fall weather.”

That recommendation will be viewed favorably by many in the business community, which abhors brown lawns and landscapes, and raise eyebrows in the environmental community, where some will doubt the logic of tapping into water reserves when stricter conservation measures could achieve the necessary reduction in pressure on the Edwards Aquifer.

“If this were mid-June, with no rain in sight and the aquifer levels were dropping fast, we might have made a different recommendation than now, one month away from the fall, when precipitation is more likely and demand will fall off,” said Anne Hayden, SAWS communication manager.  “There was a letter sent to the city manager a week ago stating that recommendation for now. We are continuing to monitor trends, and if the aquifer fails to stabilize we might need to change that recommendation.”

Former St. Augustine lawn in Alamo Heights: a vibrant garden and edible landscape
Ta Ta St. Augustine. Hello vibrant native landscape.

SAWS turns to two primary sources of alternative water supply in such circumstances, The Carrizo Aquifer and its own Aquifer Storage and Recovery sites, or ASRs. Between the two sources, SAWS recently has been pumping 10 millions gallons of water daily to augment Edwards Aquifer water and will now increase that pumpage to 20 million gallons a day.

Such figures befuddle even the most engaged citizens, but SAWS officials believe underground water reserves will be replenished over the winter, leaving them ready for the next hot, dry cycle, if necessary, to turn to the very same alternative sources to augment Edwards water.

Indoor Versus Outdoor Conservation

While ratepayers absorb Wednesday’s news of falling aquifer levels that could eventually trigger Stage III restrictions, many will start to monitor with greater interest the hurricane and tropical storm patterns in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. Tropical Storm Ernesto will probably cross the Yucatán this evening, and make landfall along the Mexican coast on Thursday, too far south to benefit San Antonio, unfortunately.

Work at SAWS, meanwhile, will focus on the draft of a new 50-year Water Management Plan Update to be presented to the board at its Sept. 11 meeting, updating the 2009 version. That report should include two significant findings:

  1. A recommendation to  contract with one of four private entities proposing out-of-market water sales to SAWS to augment existing sources.
  2. Indoor conservation efforts have achieved remarkable savings in recent years with the widespread acceptance of water-saving toilets, shower heads and other household fixtures. Outdoor conservation efforts have lost ground, thanks to the proliferation of underground irrigation systems, which are considered highly wasteful. Such systems were still the exception in the early 1990s in residences, but soon became far more commonplace. Many newer subdivisions and developments, such as Rogers Ranch and Cibolo Canyon, have mandated their installation. Most new housing priced above $150,000 comes with an underground irrigation system.

Homeowners struggle to manage these inefficient underground systems: SAWS has six full-time people on its staff who work in the field, educating people on how to use and adjust their irrigation systems. They are booked three weeks in advance. What few people realize is that SAWS not only provides free advice on managing such systems, it also will recommend ways to replace wasteful pop-up spray heads with more efficient multi-stream nozzles, and pay the user a rebate after water savings are achieved.

“The average irrigation system uses 3,000 gallons every time you run it,” said Karen Guz, SAWS director of conservation. By comparison, a 5,000-gallon rain cistern doesn’t hold “enough water to run your irrigation system twice. People really offset very little potable water with a cistern. It is more efficient if you drip irrigate.”

Guz said 50% of water released via pop-up spray heads misses its target zone, and system users seldom, if ever, shut off or adjust system controls to account for rain days or wet months.

The realization that indoor water consumption has declined by 30% over the last decade while outdoor consumption continues to creep up is leading SAWS to formulate new proposals to limit landscape irrigation. Conservation programs already exist, but SAWS officials acknowledge they will need to be more robustly marketed and promoted.

New incentives to replace St. Augustine grass with more drought-tolerant grasses, already required in new developments, are likely. SAWS already promotes use of native plant species that require far less irrigation during times of drought, and offers a rebate to homeowners who replace 30% or more their turf with native plantings. A demonstration “Water Saver Lane” at the An Antonio Botanical Garden is designed to show people that turf can replaced with colorful native plantings. Here is a link for home gardenerswho want to carry out their own lawn conversion project. One of the most widely read stories published to date on The Rivard Report was  San Antonio Lawn Makeover:  Use Solarizaiton to Rethink Water Guzzling Grass.

The bottom line is that even with a desalination plant, underground supplemental water storage (ASRs) and the eventual purchase of new out-of-market water supplies, water conservation during hot, dry years such as 2011 is the key to balancing supply and demand and protecting the Edwards Aquifer. SAWS achieved extraordinary indoor water savings in the 1990s by partnering with more than 100 non-profit groups to launch a door-to-door campaign to educate homeowners on the merits of replacing inefficient indoor fixtures. The program was so successful; that SAWS at one point was handing out a new water-saving toilet every seven seconds. That same all-out approach directed at outdoor water conservation could lead, a decade from now, from the same kind of conservation gain.

Related stories

Watching our Water Well, Waiting for the Future 

Protection, Regulation, Enforcement, Keys to Protecting our Edwards Aquifer

Cheap Water:  End of an Era

Spills and Sprawl:  the Edwards Aquifer Comes Under Increasing Threats

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

Avatar photo

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.