Where’s the Water?

Austin sits on the edge of the Llano Estacado, part of what was once called the Great American Desert. And although it isn’t the Sahara, it definitely resides on the dry end of the continuum.

The founders of Austin planned accordingly by siting the town on the banks of the most productive and reliable source of water available, and construction of the Highland Lake Dams enhanced the ability of the Colorado River to control flooding and provide for population growth.

It’s probably safe to say that it would have been difficult at the time the project was completed to envision a point at which the supply of water for Austin and its environs would be insufficient. Unfortunately, that time arrived some years ago. And what are we as inhabitants of this beautiful country doing to address the issue? Unless you want to think of 1) putting our collective heads in the sand, 2) the greed of unrestrained growth, 3) institutionalized schizophrenia, and 4) pervasive narcissism as taking action, the answer to that question is, “Nothing.”

No-growthers have what they want and would be happy to shut off the people pipeline so no one else shows up to threaten paradise. Smart-growthers want you to believe we can have it both ways. These opposing groups create an atmosphere of competing philosophies and interests not unlike Nero fiddling while Rome burned around him. Let’s look at a specific to illustrate my point.

A developer buys land and wants to build a shopping center. The city is more than eager to please. Just think of the increase in tax base, it’s good for the local economy, creates jobs, and oh, boy, we can’t wait. But before we forget, Mr. Developer, make sure you comply with all of our environmental protections, because here in Austin we care. The developer doesn’t want to stay around any longer than necessary to take his profit and rush off to the next project, so he’s more than willing to do that.

The shopping center needs enough parking to support its customers, so there’s going to be a whole bunch of concrete poured. Impervious concrete. But the city says that a certain percentage of the total area has to be pervious. They also want some landscaping to enhance the look of what would otherwise be ugliness. As a result, the developer puts in planter beds. Hopefully, he’ll install native Texas drought-tolerant plants, but in the midst of all that heat-sink concrete, he’ll have to provide supplemental irrigation.

PVC pipes are laid and stubbed out for each of the planters. In the final stages, soil and plants and sprinkler heads are installed for a system that will be controlled automatically so it’s efficient and doesn’t waste the precious water that belongs to all of us no matter who happens to be paying for it. And now to the point of this build-up, how well does that work out? You be the judge.

In the midst of a triple-digit summer with water restrictions in place, as of this writing the rules limit all users to two days per week within a set time of day for any sprinkler or irrigation system. Take a tour of the city on any given day with a copy of the restrictions in hand and compare what you see with what you are supposed to be seeing. Ignorance of the restrictions, poor design and maintenance of irrigation systems, and self-centered “I’ll do what I want” attitudes throw away thousands of gallons of water each and every day.

In our sample shopping center parking lot, we have relatively small planter areas that are hard to irrigate properly. Various kinds of heads allow adjustment of the spray patterns to match the area to be irrigated. But too many variables exist for this to be a science, not to mention the question of whether the installer took the time to choose the best head and subsequently adjust it.

As a homeowner, I do my best to maintain my irrigation system and comply with the restrictions. Many others do as well, but many more do not. And how much attention do you think our sample shopping-center manager pays to the parking lot? Our hypothetical tour will answer that when you see sprayers on in the middle of the day with poorly planned and adjusted sprinklers throwing water into hot, dry, windy conditions so it can evaporate on your car and the concrete. Or in the middle of a thunderstorm dumping three inches on the city in an hour, the sprinklers come on like good little soldiers without a leader.

These are the symptoms of the schizophrenic attitude of city government with regard to the critical issue of water now and into the future. Yes, we want your shopping center; no, we don’t want more impervious cover; yes, you can build one if you do these things; no, we really don’t care how well designed and maintained the system is.

Why? Because we’re too busy approving the next shopping center.

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