Environment
5:17 pm
Thu August 9, 2012

How A Texas Town Became Water Smart

Originally published on Fri August 10, 2012 11:02 am

Faced with a booming population and a disappearing water supply, the city of San Antonio responded by dramatically cutting consumption, pioneering new storage techniques and investing in water recycling and desalination projects. It now boasts that it is "Water's Most Resourceful City."

There are so many programs and projects that Chuck Ahrens of Water Resources and Conservation with the San Antonio Water System can hardly keep track.

"I made myself a list and I thought, 'Wow, I don't even know all of our programs.' But then I thought it would be asking a lot to remember all of our programs because we have a lot of them," says Ahrens. His list includes big money projects like desalination. But the city's greatest success is found in simple conservation.

"We have an ordinance that doesn't allow you to water after 10 in the morning and before 8," Ahrens says.

That's to curb evaporation. He says the city has also given out more than a quarter-million water-efficient toilets. The city also offers free audits to show homeowners where they can save water. And if they can't afford new pipes, Ahrens says the city has a program called Plumbers to People.

"Where they know they have a leak, we go ahead and take care of that for them," he says.

These are the things that have allowed San Antonio to be one of the fastest-growing cities in the country while not increasing water consumption. In fact, the city still uses about the same amount of water it did in the early '90s even though it has added more than 300,000 residents.

"Other cities have the advantage that they can see that San Antonio has managed water conservation and we are still growing," says Calvin Finch of Texas A&M's Water Conservation and Technology Center.

But exporting that expertise can be dicey. A few years ago, Water System Director Robert Puente went to Atlanta when it was facing serious drought.

"And so, I and our chief financial officer went out there and gave some talks and made some presentations. They were, I would say, well-received but they did leave scratching their heads. They didn't necessarily understand or agree with what we were doing here in Texas," Puente says.

Puente says his entire business model — to persuade customers to buy less of his product — seems backward in parts of the country where drought is uncommon. In San Antonio the more water you use, the more you pay per gallon. Currently only about half of water utilities across the country do that.

"There's a number of communities that still reward extra water use. Just like if you buy in volume you get a discount," Finch says.

San Antonio also funds conservation programs. But, Puente points out, all that investment pays off when water shortages hit.

This story is part of the StateImpact Texas project. StateImpact is a collaboration between NPR and member stations examining the effect of state policy on people's lives.

Copyright 2012 KUT-FM. To see more, visit http://www.kut.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

More bad news about the drought. Government monitors say the portion of the U.S. affected by extreme drought has risen since last week. The drought is forcing many communities to rethink their relationship with water, and there may be some lessons from cities that are used to living with water shortages.

From member station KUT, Mose Buchele has this story about San Antonio, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)

MOSE BUCHELE, BYLINE: I'm standing in San Antonio's Brackenridge Park along the San Antonio River. It's 100 degrees outside but, hey, this is Texas, and there are kids playing and families picnicking. I just asked a guy feeding ducks along the river where the water started, where the source of the river was, and he pointed me in the direction of some natural springs upstream. In fact, that's not completely right. Actually, at this time of year, the water really starts flowing here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

BUCHELE: This is the place in the park where the city pumps treated wastewater into the river to keep it flowing when the weather is dry. That might sound a little bit gross, but it doesn't stop Ashley Castillo and her husband from fishing here on the river.

(LAUGHTER)

ASHLEY CASTILLO: It doesn't bother me too much me.

BUCHELE: So do you eat the fish you catch here?

CASTILLO: No, not at all.

(LAUGHTER)

BUCHELE: And aggressive water recycling is just one reason why San Antonio bills itself as Water's Most Resourceful City.

CHUCK AHRENS: It would be asking a lot to remember all of our programs because we have a lot of them.

BUCHELE: That's Chuck Ahrens, VP of Water Resources and Conservation with the San Antonio Water System. His list includes big money projects like desalination. But the city's greatest success is found in simple conservation.

AHRENS: We have an ordinance that doesn't allow you to water after 10:00 in the morning and before 8:00.

BUCHELE: That's to curb evaporation.

AHRENS: We've given out - free - over a quarter of a million water-efficient toilets.

BUCHELE: That, of course, cuts back on water use. The city also offers free audits to show homeowners where they can save water. These are the things that have allowed San Antonio to be one of the fastest growing cities in the country, while not increasing water consumption. In fact, the city still uses about the same amount of water it did in the early '90s, even though it's added more than 300,000 residents.

Calvin Finch heads Texas A&M's Water Conservation and Technology Center.

CALVIN FINCH: Other cities have the advantage that they can see that San Antonio has managed water conservation. And we are still growing.

BUCHELE: But exporting that expertise can be dicey. A few years ago, Water System Director Robert Puente went to Atlanta when it was facing serious drought.

ROBERT PUENTE: And so I and our chief financial officer went out there and gave some talks and made some presentations. They were, I would say, well-received, but they did leave scratching their head. They didn't necessarily understand or agree with what we were doing over here in Texas.

BUCHELE: Puente says his entire business model - to convince customers to buy less of his product - seems backwards in parts of the country where drought is uncommon. In San Antonio, the more water you use, the more you pay per gallon. Currently, only about half of water utilities across the country do that.

Again, Calvin Finch.

FINCH: There's a number of communities that still reward extra water use. You know, just like if you buy in volume, you get a discount.

BUCHELE: San Antonio also funds conservation programs. But Puente points out all that investment pays off when water shortages hit. And it can make for some fun family fishing .

(SOUNDBITE OF DUCKS QUACKING)

ADDIE CASTILLO: Look at - we catch a fish right now.

BUCHELE: Back in Brackenridge Park, Ashley Castillo's husband, Miguel, has hooked a fish and delighted his daughter, Addie.

MIGUEL CASTILLO: Ah, it's a little perch, that's all it is.

CASTILLO: It's a little baby perch.

BUCHELE: It's also something that wouldn't be possible during drought, if not for decades of serious planning and investment in water resources.

For NPR News, I'm Mose Buchele in Austin.

CORNISH: That story was part of the StateImpact project, a collaboration between NPR and member stations, examining the effect of state policy on people's lives. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.