Austin is forging a path to a reliable water future

Six short years ago, Austin confronted a grim water future. The long dry tail of the 2011 drought combined with record population growth and increasingly concerning climate projections to paint an anxious picture of the city’s water supply. The Highland Lakes, the sole source of water for the city, were very low and facing an uncertain future. 

Yet, thanks to an all-hands-on-deck lets-do-this effort, the city rallied from those bleak months, drawing on extensive community and expert feedback to put in place the pieces that would result in an ambitious water supply plan known as Water Forward which was adopted by City Council December 2018.


Lake Travis during the 2011 drought, 46.52 feet below normal. The lingering effects of the drought stretched up to 2015, prompting the city of Austin to draft its ambitious Water Forward plan. Photo courtesty of Chase A. Foundation, TPWD

This fall, key elements of that plan are finally falling into place. The city council voted in late September to enact the first significant set of ordinances to implement Water Forward. Some are the first of their kind in Texas. The ordinances stipulate:

  1. New developments that are required to submit a site plan will be required to prepare a water budget that will inform water management decisions on the property;
  2. Austin’s large commercial developments will need to offset their non-potable water use with water generated onsite—thus preserving and extending our potable water supply. Initially, this program will be voluntary and the utility will provide incentives to encourage uptake. The program will eventually become mandatory.
  3. Large developments will be required to connect to the centralized purple pipe system if they are within 500 feet of the line.

These programs promise to create much needed water supplies for our rapidly-growing city through drawing on locally available water supplies and utilizing it close to the source.


The Austin Central Library makes extensive use of non-potable water generated onsite. The new ordinances adopted by City Council will incentivize similar re-use initiatives in new developments throughout the city.

The value of these initiatives cannot be overstated.

Austin is ahead of the curve in Texas and the nation and their proactive approach to managing water supplies by mitigating future risk and ensuring future reliability, flexibility and resilience are something that Texas communities should take note of if they have not done so already.

How does this work?

Water Forward is more than your typical water supply plan. In addition to customary water supply strategies where the focus is a centralized source of water that is treated and delivered to everyone in the community, Austin will leverage and make use of multiple sources of water that already exist within the community to augment existing supply.  

Rain and condensate from air conditioners (a plentiful supply during hot, humid summers) will be captured on individual commercial properties and then used for non-potable uses such as landscape irrigation, toilet flushing and air conditioning make-up water on the same properties that they came from.

What makes water potable vs non-potable?

Potable water is water that is fit for human consumption, i.e. drinking water. This usually means it has been filtered and treated to make it safe to drink. Non-potable is a catch-all term for the many kinds of water that are not fit for drinking—such as most surface water in lakes and rivers, harvested rainwater, and graywater discharge from bathrooms, kitchens, and washing machines. While non-potable water can not be used for drinking, it has many potential uses including flushing toilets, lawn irrigation, industrial cooling, hot water heating, and fire suppression.

Wastewater will be treated and distributed back to water users through the centralized reclaimed water program (also known as “purple pipe”). This water will be used for non-potable uses as well.

These types of programs reduce demand on the Highland Lakes, allowing their water to be used to serve our growing population without developing new “traditional” water supply strategies such as new/bigger reservoirs or pumping groundwater from other communities.

Doing this on a large scale makes a big difference. Even as Austin continues to grow, Water Forward helps ensure the per-person water demand will continue to decrease. These decreases are due to numerous conservation and efficiency strategies and a focus on meeting non-potable water needs without drawing on the potable water system.

Why does this matter?

Flexibility in water supplies increase our resilience. If water supplies are limited due to drought or other disasters, onsite water gives the community an alternative water supply, allowing the Highland Lakes to be used for vital needs. Utilities are planning for climate variability. Alternative water supply strategies are an important strategy to get there.

This is the water supply of the future. Every part of our community and every drop of water can play a role. Contrary to popular doctrine, Austin is not entirely unique in Texas—at least in terms of its water challenges. Every major urban setting in the state faces development and climate concerns. Austin’s ordinances and overall approach should be a model for the rest of the state.  


Jennifer Walker is chair of Austin’s Water Forward Taskforce. The WFTF is a group of citizens appointed by the mayor and city council to work with Austin Water to develop and implement Water Forward. It was created to participate in the development of the Water Forward Plan. The Integrated Water Resource Plan is envisioned to assist in identifying and facilitating opportunities for regional partnerships, technology cost-sharing, balanced regional water reliability, and improved drought preparedness. 

 

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