Is Water Conservation Really Bankrupting Texas Cities, or Are They Just Bad at Planning?

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The people of Fort Worth have been doing a good job of using their water sparingly, and that has the Fort Worth Water Department very, very worried.

Recent news reports claim that Fort Worth has been bleeding cash because of its noble water conservation efforts. The city lost $11 million "because of water conservation," the Texas Tribune reports, or as the Fort Worth Star-Telegram figures, the city simply made $11 million less than it had anticipated because of water conservation.

Either way, Fitch Ratings last year downgraded Fort Worth's credit rating, partly blaming it on "reduced water sales." City leaders now see water conservation as "a double-edged sword," as one city councilman described it to WFAA on Tuesday.

Water usage has dropped about 26 percent per resident since 1999. But the city still buys a lot of water. So when people don't use it, things get expensive. "This business is extremely weather-dependent," complained Mary Gugliuzza, the spokeswoman for Fort Worth's water department, to the Texas Tribune, in a report claiming that water conservation is also bankrupting other cities across Texas.

But it's not that simple, environmentalists say.

"I think that just saying water conservation means higher rates is not telling the whole story," says Jennifer Walker, a water specialist at the Sierra Club's Texas chapter. "Costs are going up whether you conserve water or not, and that is what a lot of utilities are really struggling with these days."

Water, like everything else, gets more expensive when it's in short supply, but experts say that most cities aren't planning for droughts or the resulting conservation efforts.

"Government agencies and utilities often project future demands for water without regard to price," writes the NRDC, "as though every drop of consumption was virtually priceless to its current user. We know from our own experience that this is not true."

Even as people use less, many governments don't conserve that much and continue to find expensive ways to get more and more water. In a similar vein, the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation have been lobbying against Texas' proposal to build 26 more reservoirs, arguing that the drought-stricken state is overestimating how much water it will need. They say that the state would be better off investing in conservation.

The advocacy groups point to San Antonio as a model city. It nearly killed off its blind salamander population after pumping too much out of its aquifer in the early 1990s. Facing an Endangered Species Act lawsuit, the city began aggressively looking for ways to stop depending on so much water, including polling citizens to find out if they'd prefer steep rate increases or stricter drought laws. People preferred to the second option.

Now, while other water utilities complain about losing money, the San Antonio Water System proudly champions conservation as a source of savings. "SAWS now includes water savings from conservation as a significant and separate 'supply' to recognize its true contribution and value to our diverse portfolio of water supply projects," the agency says. For the last few years the city had considered pumping billions of gallons of water out of West Texas and other areas, but officials recently dropped the idea in favor of more desalination, explaining that residents weren't using enough water to justify the original plan.

But San Antonio's a bit of an anomaly. Much like Fort Worth, Dallas has struggled with high water costs and blamed it on poor sales. Water utilities director Jody Puckett recently proposed charging more when reservoirs are low. "When you have a drought and you're not selling any water, you need higher" prices to offset the cost, she said.

To be sure, almost everyone, from independent experts to water utilities, agree that water rates need to increase, and Sierra Club's Walker says basing rates on reservoir levels sounds like a reasonable plan. But the Sierra Club argues that basic-needs type water for stuff like drinking, showering and toilet-flushing should still be priced somewhat affordably.

"It's the people that use more than that that are really driving costs," Walker says. "So those are the folks that need to pay more because they need to help keep the system going."

In that case, those homeowners in Austin who drill private wells to water their lawns and the corporations across the state accused of hogging groundwater would probably all be good candidates to foot the bill.

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