In the last few years water conservation has become a darling of both environmentalists and elected officials.

The recent drought may be largely responsible for bringing to light the urgency of water conservation.

Kip Averitt, a former Texas legislator who owns and operates his own consulting firm in Austin, has followed the evolution of such support. While attending a water conservation conference in Houston in 2012, everyone in attendance from politicians and utilities to environmentalists agreed it was a good idea. He left wondering if anything was getting done and if water conservation efforts were being measured.

Kip Averitt

In a recent phone interview, Averitt talked about his work in water conservation in the public sector.

His experience with water issues as a state legislator has proven invaluable in this pursuit. He helped implement a state water plan and was chairman of the powerful Senate Committee on Natural Resources.

Through his consulting business, he created a system for water utilities that provides them with a detailed plan, and the tools to make of the most of their conservation efforts. He put some ideas together, got the Houston Endowment onboard to fund it and a pilot program was born in 2012. It began with the working title Goldwater Project to reflect the drought-suffering notion that “water is the new gold.”

Early supporters were pleased with the results, and it grew from there, Averitt said.

The name was later changed to the Texas Water Development Board Water Conservation Research Project when the water board started funding the work. The Texas Water Development Board is the lead water planning agency in Texas and is responsible for administering the regional water planning process, and preparing and adopting the state water plan.

“It’s taken a long time to learn what we’re doing,” he said. “We started from scratch.”

Averitt found the conservation methods used by water utilities to be haphazard and lacking in sophistication.

“All manner of strategies; every conceivable manner of plan was being used,” he said.

And there was no way to quantify water conservation practices.

“Conservation is nebulous,” he said, at a recent Texas Water Development Board Region M meeting in Weslaco. “It can’t be quantified.” There was no method to determine the potential for water conservation in any region, he said.

The first thing he did was determine what water utilities were doing to encourage their customers to conserve water. That meant going door to door to water utilities with a questionnaire in hand to gather information.

He deliberately launched the project in Houston with the thinking: if it worked in a large metropolis, it could work anywhere.

Averitt’s team used formulas and manufactures’ warranties to calculate how much a specific strategy conserved. It was through these uniform measurements and analyses that they were able to figure out how much water is actually being saved. There have been as many as 13 people at one time gathering data and crunching the numbers in his Austin office. Presently, they are writing reports. The next step, Averitt said, is to develop software.

“Hands down, the most effective strategy is to limit outdoor watering,” Averitt said. “Cities that have ordinances which limit the number of times per week save huge amounts of water!
“Other outdoor methods are restricting watering to evening hours (to reduce evaporation), and not allowing for wasteful practices such as letting water run off onto the streets and sidewalks.
Patterns of water conservation methods have emerged through their research.

Larger cities have more resources to take offer of a variety of methods. For instance, large cities typically have a higher percentage of homes that use sprinkler systems.

“Therefore, twice a week watering is more popular in larger cities,” Averitt said.

“Smaller cities usually see reduced demand when they have to raise prices for water.  Utility bills in smaller cities usually make up a bigger portion of the family budget.”

The water community and state legislators came onboard after seeing the value of the program. They thought it was important for the entire state to participate in, Averitt said.

All 16 regional water planning groups in the state are participating in the program with 220 water systems statewide. Local participants are North Alamo Water Supply Corp., Rio Grande City, Agua SUD, Alamo, Alton, East Rio Hondo WSC, Edcouch, Edinburg, Elsa, Hidalgo, Hidalgo City MUD #1, La Feria, La Villa, Laredo, McAllen, Mercedes, Military Highway, Mission, Olmito WSC, Pharr, San Juan, Sharyland WSC, Union WSC, Weslaco and Zapata.

The recent drought opened eyes and minds, Kip said. Texas voters approved a proposition in 2013 to use $2 billion from the state Rainy Day Fund for water planning projects. This funding kick-started water conservation in earnest, he said.

Anytime there is a price hike, many consumers change their water-loving habits.

“Rate increases are never popular but they are a fact of life,” Averitt said. “Utilities, just like any other business, see their costs grow over time for various reasons. As the price of water goes up, the demand is reduced.”

As with all things in business, there is a balance to be maintained. Conservation is only one-fourth of the need for future supplies of water, Averitt said.

“Water conservation means lost revenue to a water utility,” he said.  “It benefits knowing how much conservation is enough.

“It’s a matter of education. We’re helping them figure it out.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows Kip Averitt, right, talking with Steven Sanchez, general manager of North Alamo Water Supply Corporation.