A conversation with Austin City Councilmember Kathie Tovo
Councilmember Kathie Tovo was first elected to Austin City Council in 2011 and was re-elected in 2014 and again in 2018. Her Council service includes serving on the Audit and Finance and Austin Energy Oversight Committees, the Joint Subcommittee of the City, County, and Austin Independent School District, and the Sobering Center Board of Directors. Prior to taking office, she taught writing and interdisciplinary studies at the college level and worked at Humanities Texas, the state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. She holds a Ph.D. from The University of Texas at Austin and a B.A. with honors from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Councilmember Tovo was instrumental to the development and approval of Austin Water’s 100-year integrated water resources management plan, aptly named the “Water Forward Plan,” that City Council passed in November 2018. Among other things, the Plan focuses on diversifying the City’s water supply and identifying local sources of water like recycled water and onsite reuse. WaterNow spoke with Councilmember Tovo this week about her vision for a resilient and water forward Austin.
Why did you decide to run for City Council in Austin in 2011? What issues were you most interested in focusing on if elected?
I ran after several years of involvement on community taskforces and in my neighborhood association. I was largely interested in focusing on issues related to affordable housing and ensuring that the development occurring in Austin would provide community-wide benefits. I also had a strong commitment to environmental sustainability and at the time I ran, there were concerns about the construction of a new water treatment plant.
Community members were worried about the cost of the treatment plant and were stepping forward to say that there are other options available that we should explore first, such as fixing our aging infrastructure, cutting down on high water loss from leaky pipes, and encouraging water conservation. They were pointing to what we could already see as a trend in water conservation having an impact on water use. In the end, the water treatment plant was built, but some of the strategies advocated for during the treatment plant became important elements of the Water Forward Plan. The Plan aims to ensure that as we plan for a sustainable future, we’re looking at all of the options available to us, especially maximizing water conservation and using locally available water supplies before we look toward large infrastructure projects.
What are the major water challenges facing the City?
First and foremost, we’re entirely dependent on surface water from the Highland Lakes, a series of reservoirs created by the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) in the 1930s. They were created in part to control flooding in the region but also to provide a more secure water source for Austin, the smaller municipalities that surround Austin, and the agricultural producers near the Gulf Coast. The City of Austin has an agreement with LCRA for water from the Highland Lakes and the city owns senior water rights for run-of-river water from the Colorado River. This is a great water supply for Austin, but what we have observed is that this water supply is susceptible to drought and climate change.
In 2011, we had a record-breaking drought that extended several years. The water stored in the Highland Lakes dropped to one-third of its storage capacity. It was an extremely challenging time for Austin, the surrounding communities, and downstream irrigators. We had emergency orders that cut off most of the irrigation water for downstream agriculture. Austin’s City Manager ordered the City to enter into a more restrictive drought stage than we had ever been in before, and this was after some really intentional focus on conservation measures prior to the drought. Outdoor watering was limited to one day a week and car washing was prohibited; these were measures that Austinites had never experienced. But it worked. As a result of the conservation measures during and before the drought, we were able to reduce our per capita consumption by 36% over a 10-year period.
Our second major challenge is our really dynamic population growth in the Austin Metropolitan Area. We’re one of fastest growing cities in the country, and our population typically doubles every 20 years. It really becomes critical that we’re approaching our water usage and planning in a very comprehensive way to ensure that the next generation of Austinites will have access to sufficient water for their needs.
While we have deep droughts, Austin also experiences significant flooding events. A couple of years ago we had very extensive flooding leading to permanently displaced residents and several deaths. Recently, we had flooding that resulted in a boil water notice for the first time ever in Austin. There was so much sediment in the water from flooding in the watershed that our water treatment plants that the City couldn’t keep up with it.
And lastly, a challenge that’s not unique to Austin is climate change. What we’re seeing is that climate change is already influencing the environmental challenges we face including increased flooding, risk of wildfires, and drought. We need to plan with that as our underlying narrative, unfortunately.
Has the City developed any strategies to help avoid future boil water notices?
We’re still doing the after-action reporting for this situation, but one strategy is to continue to monitor our water treatment plants and flood risks closely. Because we’re reliant on a single water source, the other important strategy to avoid this in the future will be to encourage water source diversification, like the local sources identified in the Water Forward Plan.
In November 2018, Austin passed its trailblazing 100-year integrated water management plan. Why did the City decide to undertake the development of this ambitious plan?
The drought was one of the primary reasons why the City decided to develop the integrated water resources plan. During the drought there were a lot of conversations about steps that Austin could take to ensure a sufficient water supply now and into the future. One of the ideas discussed involved developing relationships with other water rights holders close to Austin to purchase their surface or groundwater supplies, but there was a lot of concern in the community about the equity and reliability of this type of model.
Other cities in Texas, like San Antonio, were also pursuing integrated water management plans at the time, however, something unique to Austin is that the idea to develop an integrated water management plan came from community members. There was a real interest in seeing a water planning process that would look at what we can do locally and how our community could develop a water secure future without procuring a water portfolio from other regions.
What are the Water Plan’s major objectives?
It’s a three-pronged approach to increase the sustainability, reliability and the diversity of our water supply for the next 100 years. The Plan recommends big ideas like aquifer storage and recovery, but also localized strategies that we’ve already seen be successful in Austin like increased water reuse. We want to move towards a system that requires larger developments to have dual plumbing for landscape irrigation and other non-potable uses. We have some municipal buildings that are already using onsite reuse systems like our Central Library. This facility has a 300,000-gallon cistern where we capture rainwater and air conditioning condensate and use that water to flush toilets and irrigate the landscape. The building is also is connected to the centralized reclaimed water system in case the water collected and treated onsite is insufficient. We want to encourage the adoption of these technologies in the near term.
The other objective is to ensure that we’re being socially equitable and respecting the needs of other communities to have access to their local water supply. We also want to make sure that we’re protecting important terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems that are downstream on the Gulf Coast and depend on sufficient releases. Austin strives to be a good steward of local and regional resources.
How did Austin Water staff, city council, the Austin Water Forward Task Force members, and others work together to develop this plan?
I think this is a great example to show that if you set up a successful process, you can end up with an excellent product. We had one of the most extensive and robust public processes I’ve seen.
I sponsored the measure in Council to create the Water Forward Task Force and the Council took on the role of establishing the Taskforce, setting in place the understanding that the taskforce would guide the development of the integrated water resources plan, and, of course, Council provided the funding for this process. Unlike other cities where consultants generally lead this type of planning process, the Task Force, which was made up of volunteer water experts from our community, and our Utility staff and management, worked closely with the consultants. The taskforce met monthly, and often in smaller groups between meetings. We were very fortunate to have expert staff who were involved in the process and allowed concerns from the community to be aired and respected that feedback, positive or negative. They let that feedback really shape the product. We saw what a priority the City placed on this because we had the General Manager, Assistant General Manager, Engineers, and other staff at every one of those meetings, alongside a great group of citizen experts who gave up hundreds of hours of their free time.
They also did a good job of engaging the broader public by going to neighborhood meetings, by holding listening sessions in the community, by going to libraries and grocery stores to gather feedback. We didn’t just receive input from the handful of people who served on the taskforce and the broader group that attended meetings, but really intentionally involved Austinites throughout the City. Ultimately, for the Plan to be successful we’re going to need the commitment and engagement from all of our community members.
Council unanimously supported the Plan (with one member absent) when it came to a vote. This planning process got underway in 2014, and conversations about were held across several different Councils, so we had a number of discussions about it to ensure that the everyone understood the purpose of the Plan.
The vote for the Water Forward Plan actually came forward at exactly the same time as we were experiencing a prolonged citywide boil water notice. While the boil water notice was a terribly unfortunate event, the timing was important because events like that show the importance of this kind of comprehensive planning and the need to diversify sources.
What strategies identified in the Plan are you most excited about seeing adopted or expanded in Austin?
Definitely our onsite water reuse opportunities, I believe some of these strategies should be embedded into the code as requirements. One of the things contemplated by the Water Forward Plan is requiring larger developments to make provisions to capture water onsite and to reuse it. This reduces each new development’s reliance on our potable water system and benefits our community as a whole. I’m also excited about the opportunities that exist for individual homeowners to really act on conservation measures and for some of our local partners like Austin Independent School District to be conservation-focused.
Why do you think that sustainable water management in Austin and Texas is so important?
I had an opportunity to speak at the Water Utility Climate Alliance Summit last year and quoted W.H. Auden, “Thousands have lived without love but none without water.” It’s so critical to our survival of our species on this planet. Making sure that we have a sufficient and sustainable water supply and that we’re building towards becoming a resilient community is critical. We wanted our planning to reflect our Austin values and, as a result of that great community process and collaboration, we have that in our Water Forward Plan.
WaterNow’s Annual Summit in Austin this year, which you’ll be presenting at, brings together local water decision-makers from around the country to learn how to advance sustainable water programs in their communities. Why do you feel it’s important for local decision makers to participate in this event?
We learn so much from one another and so many initiatives that are successful in one city can adapted and used by other cities. This is an opportunity to hear different ideas and to learn about different programs, both their successes and some of the challenges they may have faced.
Conferences like this are an opportunity for one-on-one discussions that help us as we go back to our constituents and colleagues to articulate the importance of these types of solutions.
It’s critical that facing what we’re facing as a world, and with some of what’s happening on the federal level, we as local decision makers do everything we can to build sustainable, resilient communities.