Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Water - political hotspot

Here in The Woodlands, we are considering a systematic lawn-watering schedule, similar to what we have now in this drought, but not activated by drought conditions. We do need good water management. Who is the target of this possible new action and why? I see responsible people every day acquiescing to the current regulations for good reason – the drought, to conserve water by observing the current restrictions to water only two times a week (one inch). But let's get to some form of reality. Personally, I have been considering this from the moment it was instituted this year. Right now, I have to use more water for the lawn than I did before, to technically comply with the restriction. I have made it known to some of the authorities that this situation exists and why. Although there is no official accommodation in these restrictions for temperature, for soil conditions, nor for work schedules or home direction orientation, there is a means to get an exception. An example of need: Most of my lawn can go six days without water if I give it one inch and supplement the watering in a couple of small places. There are a few places facing west that cannot survive a week without water. Now it would seem that I have to water twice a week to comply with the drought restrictions. Technically yes, but actually no. There is good news, the Joint Powers Authority can and will accommodate case-by-case situations. It is recommended by the same authority to water once a week with a one-inch application. That is possible in my yard at a 95-degree maximum ambient temperature. It is impossible at 101. Our current restrictions are not inflexible. All that the Joint Powers Agency (JPA) actually asks us to do is to not waste water and help them keep the pressure up for fire safety. The current restrictions are good to help us to do that, but they need to be regarded as somewhat flexible. Try to follow them if practical. Neighbor-to-neighbor, no one wants to be seen breaking the rules. If there is an issue and you can minimize waste in some other way, tell the authority and get an exception. Then tell your neighbors why it is better for you, if watering in a different manner than prescribed embarrasses you. It might even help neighborly relations by being outside talking to your neighbor on watering days.

To accommodate my situation, I have to call the JPA and seek an exception. That I have not yet done, but when it is in place, I may be watering some days that are not mandated for my address. I seek to minimize my water usage on my lawn. That is my objective and that is the authority’s objective. The authority understands that goal and certainly supports it.

So look at the possibility of a “permanent” schedule. A schedule is not a permanent restriction; it is a model of usage. It should be thought of as a predictive model where everyone falls into a pattern of use, under a guideline of watering a maximum of twice a week, in all seasons. Then the water district should not face huge aberrations in consumption or water availability. The JPA should be able to manage the water and sewage systems much more efficiently and effectively. This does make sense!

The proposal is to establish a pattern of usage that distributes consumption as it does right now in this drought. That will probably require a model, similar to what we have now, but not necessarily confine us to that model. All that is needed is that we are consistent and water our lawns judiciously and to do it evenly across the community. Lifestyles may be different among households and homes a bit different, so a household is essentially asked to establish a predictive routine and stay with it. Don’t deviate from the model unless there is good reason to however. Exceptions cost administrative overhead.

There is more to this. 40% of our water in the summer is wasted, according to studies. It flows into gutters and into the sewage system. 80% of our consumption right now is estimated to be in irrigating our yards. A huge amount of our precious resource is wasted every day. Unfortunately, there are just a few residents who waste it in large amounts. There is waste in every household, but the bottom line volume consumption rests with a fairly small percentage of homeowners. I know I have some waste. I would say that perhaps 1% of the water applied goes down the street. If we were truly required to save every gallon, I would need to have my automatic system redesigned or just abandon using the system. I trigger it manually when my day comes around, so I can have two back-2-back cycles and get maximum penetration from the application. Managing the edges to zero runoff would be a serious challenge but may be a next step down the road, should water become so scarce that we have to regulate it by the gallon instead of by the tens of gallons.

Managing a drought is different than managing annual consumption, but what we learn in a drought can be applied to the management of the area resources in all seasons.

Isn't part of the problem the St Augustine grass that we use throughout the state? Where is A&M's solution to this problem? I do not support having a program at the spigot if we don’t have a long-range plan to deal with the root of the problem. There are two roots to the problem - people and landscape material or devices.

People are wasteful. Those who significantly overuse water should be interviewed and ways found to lessen their use of water. How do we know they are out of line in usage? There is a way to measure it. Abnormalities could be identified through an index method, which I will describe later. Maybe there is also a technology gap. I don’t assume that rain controllers, mulch and St Augustine are the solutions, and perhaps the technology used is not what is available now for the problems we have. For example, is there a better way to water the edges of the lawn to deliver water but not waste any water? Or can we use native or native-modified grasses, instead of St Augustine? For some families’ style of life, such an index may not be seem practical, but everyone can treat the limited water resource in a judicious manner. Where there is serious concern, there is always a practical solution. It is well known that misuse of water by some residents is the probable cause of our current issue, but must everyone suffer on their behalf? If it is true that 40% of our water is wasted, then why not find that 40% and find workable remedies to that problem? To me, this is a different issue than distributing the use of the water over days of the week.

St Augustine grass has always demanded considerable water to survive, although it will take a beating and usually grow back when the water is more available. Nonetheless it is susceptible to disease and drought. Is it time we change? This is a problem for Texas A&M. It is an issue all along the Gulf Coast. Grass helps to control flooding and is very useful, not just an aesthetic component of landscape. As water becomes more and more precious by short supply, shouldn't we begin to abandon our love for St Augustine and replace our grass with something requiring less water? . I am told “no’ by the GM of JPA. 1Maybe Texas A&M could research a better St Augustine that survives drought better. Drought is a Texas normality. St Augustine is not a water-inefficient grass. As I stated in another article, there are issues with the other grasses but at the same time, there are alternatives and opportunities.

Our wells are not producing what they once did. We have to drill deeper into the reservoirs sometimes to make them produce at the required rates. I have never heard of any water wells in this general area that have maintained production without intervention. Population growth here has been tremendous, but we have not had an apparent water pressure issue, mostly because of drought interventions in the summer. I have witnessed serious urban water pressure issues elsewhere and that was not pretty! It was downright annoying, frustrating and dangerous. If we have to regulate the water, then let's regulate the volume of water used. That is the real issue here, not whether we are watering on given days of the week, but nonetheless, it is good to have a systematic scheduled watering schedule just to eliminate or reduce the threat of lowered water pressure.

So is it such a bad thing to ask residents to have the same water schedule we currently have throughout the year? That seems a bit of an over-kill to me. Austin2 has a set schedule every year from May 1st through September 30th. Maybe we should have it from June 1st to October 30th. I am concerned about watering at night during October however. That will cause fungus. Maybe we can end at the end of September also. Face it any time outside of that window has no watering issues, at least from my meandering around The Woodlands.

Why not regulate growth? This would certainly be a politically explosive strategy. New housing could take on more of the issue, instead of existing residents. If we don’t have enough water, why do we grow? But the point is, we have enough. It is just being wasted.

Personally, I like using educational means to get people to judiciously consume water and when that doesn’t work, slap those who are causing the problem on the wrist. So here is a suggestion – since we know the volume of water used in every household and business, and we know the appraised square feet of each home and the lot size, would it be better to start using a meaningful measure to identify those misusing our resources? If I use 1000 gallons and a huge multi-million home uses 100,000 gallons, which one is over using water? Both have to maintain their homes and their landscape. You use a normalization technique. Say my home site is 3000 sq feet and the big home is on 20000 sq feet. Now who is using more than their share of water? Then I use 3000/8000 or .35 gallons per sq foot per month while the other homeowner is using 5 gallons per square foot. So is the large home wasting water? Not necessarily. However, what is reasonable and not reasonable can be determined from looking at the population of homes in the community and this usage index. I would say that anyone having more than twice the median index of the total population might be overusing water (just a shot in the dark). This may not be very close to an answer, but something like this is what we need to be doing.

Performance indices are one of my favorite subjects. The JPA has not publicized any yet and probably do not have one in the works. It would be worthwhile to contract an effort to assess a better way to manage this precious resource in our community. I know this can be done and it should not cost us an arm and a leg. Then metaphorically we could slap those who abuse the resource on the wrist and even break an arm if it comes to that.

This article was rewritten and published on July 22nd.

1 Joint Powers Agency - Mr. James Stintson, P.E., General Manager
2 Austin water regulations

No comments: