During 2011, one of the driest years on record in Texas, residents of some of the largest cities increased their water usage — despite the widespread adoption of restrictions on lawn-watering.
"When you have hot and dry conditions, people tend to use more water, mostly for outside watering,” said Jennifer Walker, of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. “Also, many communities do not implement water restrictions until late summer,” she added.
Data from various water utilities around the state shows a rise in 2011, compared with 2010. In both San Antonio and Dallas, average water use at single-family accounts rose by 17 percent in 2011 compared with 2010, and residential usage increased by the same amount in Fort Worth. In El Paso, per-capita water usage increased by 4 percent last year.
"There's not much rain coming down. And people really try that much harder to keep their lawns green and bushes growing and flowers sprouting, and that type of thing," said Ted Nelson, a spokesman for the water department in Corpus Christi, which also saw a rise in usage last year (as did San Angelo). In addition, Nelson said, people may use more water in anticipation of new restrictions. (Corpus Christi does not have restrictions, he said, but "we do always ask people to be conservation-minded.")
Walker, of the Sierra Club, said that people who don’t generally water outside tend to begin watering in droughts — and when residents are only allowed to water on one of two days during the week, there is a tendency to overwater.
Sharlene Leurig of CERES, a nonprofit that encourages investors to think sustainably, says that, in essence, water may be too cheap. "Utilities do not aggressively price water to reflect its true cost," she said. "Many haven't changed their pricing structures in a long time, and yet aging pipes and water infrastructure needs to be updated."
Currently, she noted, utilities face a conundrum: the more Texans conserve, the less revenue the water utilities bring in to make infrastructure improvements.
Water usage in 2011, while high compared with 2010 (a rainy year), was lower in some cities than it was five years ago. In Fort Worth, residential water usage was 16 percent lower last year than in 2006; in San Antonio, it was 5 percent lower than in 2006.
Several cities have taken conservation measures to cope with the drought. In El Paso, which is keeping a worried eye on the level of the Rio Grande, plans a "huge conservation outreach campaign" this spring, with the help of social media, according to spokeswoman Christina Montoya. That will advertise the city's longstanding watering schedule — residents are allowed to water for three days a week — and how to check for leaks. Many people have moved into the El Paso area in recent years, she noted, especially as Fort Bliss has expanded, and they may not be familiar with the schedule.
The recent rains don't mean a relief from the drought anytime soon. For example, in Central Texas, Lake Travis is nearly 40 feet below its average level in March. So, while the precipitation is welcome, conservation advocates say it's not time to ease off of water-saving policies.
"Our population is growing, but our water resources are essentially finite," said Myron Hess, manager of Texas water programs for the National Wildlife Federation. "Unfortunately, with only a few exceptions, water use in Texas' cities remains far too high. There is nothing smart about failing to take advantage of these tried and true ways of increasing water-use efficiency."
At this year’s Central Texas Water Conservation Symposium, scheduled for this month, city officials, water utility managers and HOA representatives are hoping to address the problem of securing water for the future in Texas. “We need to promote water-efficiency education, legislation, programs and technology,” Hess said. “The idea is to regionally have a positive impact on water usage, through better processes.”
Kate Galbraith contributed to this report.