CONNIE SWINNEY • PICAYUNE STAFF
MARBLE FALLS — Municipalities have implemented more stringent water conservation measures detailing use guidelines and waste penalties which could leave customers and cities paying more even as water usage decreases, officials say.
Persistent drought conditions and recent limits placed on downstream agricultural customers hastened the move towards tighter water use controls.
“If you look up the Highland Lakes – our water comes from Lake Buchanan – it’s around 28-feet low. It’s the lowest it’s been since 1951,” said Jeff Koska, director of community services for the City of Horseshoe Bay. “When that supply goes down, we’re out of water. We have to be very protective of that water.”
This month, the cities of Horseshoe Bay and Marble Falls unveiled new fines for customers who fail to follow additional water use restrictions as those communities move from Stage 2 to Stage 3 water use requirements, modeled after guidelines in the Lower Colorado River Authority Drought Contingency Plan.
The LCRA offered recommendations to wholesale customers who draw water from the Lower Colorado River Basin, which includes a chain of waterways known as the Highland Lakes comprised of two reservoirs – Lake Buchanan and Travis – and so-called constant-level lakes – Inks Lake, Lake LBJ, Lake Marble Falls and two lakes in Austin.
Approximately one million people rely on the waterways for domestic water use, according to LCRA.
“LCRA has asked us to do this,” Acting Marble Falls City Manager Margie Cardenas said. “We feel it’s necessary to follow their highly-recommended requirements.”
At their March 18 regular meeting, Marble Falls City Council members are expected to move from Stage 2 to Stage 3 and approve a fine structure, effective March 19, for customers who fail to comply with the new guidelines, Cardenas said.
An initial violation warrants a warning; a second infraction results in a $50 fine; $100 for the third violation; and $200 for a fourth offense, Cardenas said.
Horseshoe Bay city council members also set a fine structure for usage violations and waste infractions, effective March 17, and hired a full-time water conservation officer to monitor use.
Horseshoe Bay customers will receive a warning for the first offense; a fine totaling 10 percent of their current bill or $100 (whichever is greater) for the second offense; a third violation would amount to a 15 percent fine; a fourth violation would amount to a 20 percent fine.
“In the past it hasn’t always been enforced,” said Jeff Koska, director of community services for the City of Horseshoe Bay. “The city has employed a water conservation officer that will be out doing enforcement as well as assisting folks, helping them get to the levels they need to be.”
Wholesale customers say they avoid potential penalties themselves by passing the restriction mandates onto customers.
“If we don’t do this, we will also be penalized by LCRA,” Cardenas said. “It’s about water conservation.”
Current Marble Falls water department staff will monitor and report violations.
“The biggest difference (for all wholesale customers) is going from twice-a-week to once-a-week watering schedule,” Koska said.
Additional restrictions supplement current conservation measures which, among other guidelines, place limits on ornamental fountains; prohibits washing of sidewalks or driveways; and restricts certain types of outdoor cleaning and vehicle washing to handheld and automatic nozzle use.
In Marble Falls, with the move from Stage 2 to Stage 3 restrictions, officials also implemented a new rate structure – effective the current fiscal year – for high-volume water customers such as car washes, the public school district and laundry services.
The new structure increases those bills exponentially for greater water use compared to low-volume users.
One downside of the increased conservation involves the potential for utility rate hikes and a potential for reduction in city expenditures to offset the decreased revenue from reduced water use by customers, Cardenas said.
“Sometimes it goes too well, where people may not use any water, and then we’re going to be strapped for the revenue (to fund city utility departments and pay debt),” Cardenas said. “We have some reserves in utility fund, but we don’t have a whole lot. We would definitely need to make a change on rates in the future and look at our operating expenditures to see if their is any way to decrease any of them.”
Koska said, “Right now we don’t have any intention of changing the rates. The city has a fund to level out lows and highs (of water use revenue).”
Cities have sent notifications to customers specifying the new guidelines and offering water-saving tips.
Horseshoe Bay customers have asked for the city to assist them in their conservation efforts.
“I’ve already had a lot of calls of customers wanting to have irrigation audits,” he said. “A lot of the folks here have a lot invested in their landscape and they want it to survive, but they understand the conditions of the lakes now, so they’re willing to help out how they can.”