Robert Rivard

 On Tuesday, March 6, the same day the city was celebrating the 176th anniversary of the Battle of the Alamo, the San Antonio Water System (SAWS), in conjunction with the City Manager’s office, lifted Stage One watering restrictions and restored “Year Round” watering rules.

You might have missed it.

As I learned one day later while moderating a Leadership SA panel on the city’s energy future, staged at the impressive new Broadway Bank building, not even a roomful of San Antonio’s future leaders could answer my question, “What are Stage One watering restrictions?” Unless you count the guy who quipped, “Brown lawns.”

Homeowners certainly know this much: When the Edwards Aquifer falls below the 660 foot level,  lawn watering with irrigation systems or sprinklers is limited to once a week between 8 p.m. and 10 a.m. There are, in fact, a range of other, lesser known restrictions that are not obeyed universally. Prohibitions on running water hoses while washing vehicles at home, for example, or washing impervious surfaces such as parking lots, sidewalks, and driveways.

A wet winter, but summer's around the corner
A wet winter, but summer’s around the corner

The Edwards Aquifer Authority (EAA) reported the aquifer level at 661.5 feet on Thursday, a scant 1.5 feet above the level that would trigger a return to Stage One. Yes, the region has enjoyed a “wet” two months this year — after the worst recorded drought in contemporary times. What happens if it stops raining?

The rules are confusing, even to those who care about conservation.  The EAA lifted Stage One restrictions 10 days after well measurements reached 660 feet, while the stricter City of San Antonio ordinance required well readings to average 660 feet for 30 days before Stage One restrictions were lifted.

Current Year Round restrictions still limit lawn watering to an 8 p.m.-10 a.m. window, but incredibly, homeowners are free to water their St. Augustine grass seven days a week.  Equally surprising, washing your vehicle with a running hose is not prohibited. The guidelines recommend using a nozzle to restrict water flow, but it’s not mandatory.

San Antonio’s projected population growth, continued economic development, and the rush to drill thousands of new oil and gas wells in the nearby Eagle Ford Shale Formation, all point to a single inevitability: All of us need to reduce our per capita water usage if there is going be enough for everyone in the years ahead.

This seems to be a good time, while we enjoy bountiful rains and emotions are not running as hot and dry as a Texas wildfire, for the City of San Antonio and SAWS to make the case for a stricter ordinance. Here are four good reasons for doing so:

  1. SAWS and the EAA have various models that project future water demand. There are no scenarios where the region can continue to thrive without greater water conservation.
  2. Reducing demand on the aquifer would extend the periods of time, even in dry years, when the City and SAWS avert imposing Stage Two and Three restrictions.
  3. Homeowners derive no benefit in wet months from rules that allow daily lawn watering.  The rules codify waste.
  4. Better water management means San Antonio will see fewer news stories questioning the reliability of the region’s future water supply, stories that cause heartburn for economic development officials.

Vision Nine in Mayor Julián Castro’s SA2020 initiative addresses this very issue: “In 2020, San Antonio is recognized as a respectful steward of its natural resources and a model for responsible resource management.”

What does that mean? For you and me, it means reducing our current per capita water usage from 124 gallons to 116 gallons a day. SA2020 sets some very ambitious goals, but this is one goal that is actually achievable ahead of schedule. Were Castro able to announce such a success in, say, two or three years, that could help build public momentum for achieving some of the more challenging SA2020 goals.

There are a number of things San Antonio does better than anyone else in the state or even the country, although we don’t tell our own story as well as we could. Why not establish beyond any doubt our status as a national leader in water conservation?

Steve Clouse is the chief operating officer of SAWS and someone who has been involved in water resource management in and around San Antonio since the 1980s. He was on the Leadership San Antonio panel I moderated and was as surprised as I was that no one in the room could explain Stage One restrictions.

Clouse points out that San Antonio today, with 1.3 million people, uses roughly the same amount of water it did in the 1980s with a population in the 800,000+ range. SAWS should lease a highway billboard to tout its best mantra: “San Antonio’s cheapest source of water is conservation.”

Toughening the terms of San Antonio’s water use ordinance “won’t go over well with the brown lawn people, but after our Leadership SA panel I had a Master Leadership event and one of the things people there challenged on me on was why we weren’t requiring year around restrictions,” Clouse said.

It’s easy as a journalist to suggest public policy change. It’s much harder for officials to implement, especially in two-year election cycles. But good leadership is all about making tough decisions, and this one is in everyone’s interest.

The days of daily landscape irrigation should be consigned to history. People will do what is in the community’s best interests when leadership is clear and unequivocal in making its case for shared sacrifice. There are too many people, unfortunately, who will not act in the public interest if you give them a choice.


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Robert Rivard

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