Reducing Outdoor Water Use

Outdoor water use, which mostly means lawn watering, represents one of the largest uses of water in urban areas.  The Texas Living Water Project’s 2010 Sprayed Away report found that summer use often is 50-60% higher than in the winter when lawn watering is minimal. And according to the Texas Water Development Board, approximately half of the water poured on lawns runs off or evaporates away without actually benefiting the landscaping. It makes little sense to procure, treat and deliver high-quality drinking water to customers across a city only to have it evaporate immediately or disappear down a storm drain once we apply it inefficiently to our outdoor landscapes.

Sprayed Away calculates that if 18 Texas cities achieved just a twenty-five percent reduction in outdoor water use, they could save, collectively, an average of 147 million gallons every day during the summer. Reducing summer peak usage can also save millions of dollars in treatment costs. The bottom line is that changing the way we water our lawns is one of the most practical and cost-effective ways we can ensure we have the water we need for the future.

To address this significant use, Texas cities should implement the following seven efficiency measures that have a proven track report of reducing landscaping water use.

1. Improving Automatic Irrigation Systems: Irrigation systems are becoming increasingly common in Texas. The American Water Works Association estimates that homes with in-ground irrigation systems use 35% more water than homes without irrigation systems. Many of these systems are not designed or installed correctly. In fact, staff at the Austin Water Utility report water waste of 20% to 50% due to poor system design. Cities should take steps to make sure that these systems are as efficient as possible by offering free system audits and rebates on water-saving upgrades such as rain sensors.

2. Rethinking the Lawn: Decisions made today about the types of lawns and landscapes to install in new developments have the potential to influence water use for decades to come. Smaller areas of turfgrass and the use of drought resistant grasses can make a big contribution to reducing water use. Unfortunately, with only a few notable exceptions, Texas cities are currently doing little to guide new developments in this way.

Landscaping in Cedar Park, Texas Photo courtesy of Whitney Milberger

Landscaping in Cedar Park, Texas
Photo courtesy of Whitney Milberger

3. Landscaping Rebates: Cities across the country have created programs paying customers to replace their turfgrass with more water-efficient landscaping. These programs are becoming more common in Texas, with entities such as the City of Pflugerville and San Antonio Water System offering rebate programs. To ensure that customers learn new watering habits, utilities should make payment of rebates contingent on customers actually reducing their water use.

4. Rainwater Harvesting: Capturing rainwater has real potential as a source of water for Texas. A report published by the Texas Water Development Board estimated that a metropolitan area the size of Dallas could capture roughly 2 billion gallons of water annually if just 10% of the roof area was used to harvest rainwater.  Residential-scale rainwater harvesting systems  are a great feature for new housing developments.  Although several Texas cities currently offer rebates on rain barrels, this source of water is currently seriously underutilized.

Rainwater barrel and "This yard is helping to conserve our water supply" sign at the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District  Photo courtesy of Robin Gary, BSEACD

Rainwater barrel at the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District Office
Photo courtesy of Robin Gary, BSEACD

5. Rate Structures: A strongly tiered rate structure is the most equitable way to price water. Most residential customers use limited amounts of water, placing smaller demands on the system, and should pay less per unit of water as a result. For example, the San Antonio Water System has found that about 80% of their residential customers do not see any significant rise in their bills during the summertime. This indicates that the 30% bump in total water use that San Antonio sees during the summertime is primarily caused by a small portion of the utility’s customers. However, heavy users in most cities usually pay little more, and often less, per thousand gallons than frugal water users when factoring in all components of water rates.  Read more: Designing Water Rate Structures for Water Conservation and Revenue Stability

6. Watering Ordinances: To ensure that landscaping water is used as effectively as possible, cities should encourage once-a-week watering and should restrict lawn watering to no more than twice a week even during years of normal rainfall. Landscape watering during the heat of the day should be prohibited, subject only to limited exceptions. To help reinforce consistent patterns, the time-of-day restriction should apply throughout the year

7. Education Programs: At the end of the day, most people want to use water wisely. Water utilities can and should play an active role in giving people the information they need to make smart decisions about how and when to use water outdoors. To be most effective, educational programs should repeat specific, practical recommendations that water customers can easily understand and apply to their own landscapes and consistently reach out to customers through multiple channels. At their best, educational programs create an understanding of the region’s water resources and build support for other conservation measures a utility may decide to undertake.

Case Study: Water Conservation in San Antonio

Efforts to reduce water use in San Antonio over the past 3 decades have been tremendously successful. As a result, San Antonio is able to use the same quantity of water to serve many more people than it did over 30 years ago, despite the city’s tremendous growth in population over that period.

Conserving Water to Prepare for Drought

Ongoing water conservation programs are the single best way to set the stage for effective drought response at both the local and state level.

Get Involved

Learn how you can help at home, in your community and at the state level to ensure the most efficient use of our existing water supplies.

Municipal Water Conservation

Unfortunately, not all cities in Texas are pursuing conservation as aggressively as they could. To reduce local water use, we recommend that cities and local water utilities should adopt seven common-sense measures.

Role of State Government

The State of Texas must take a lead role in encouraging efficient use of limited water resources in communities throughout the state. The Texas Living Waters Project recommends a number of actions to help achieve improved local water conservation.

Top Three Water User Categories in Texas

Water is used for a variety of different purposes in Texas, including municipal, irrigation, livestock, manufacturing, mining, and steam-electric power generation. The top three major water user categories in Texas are municipal, agricultural, and industrial.

Useful Links and Resources

Useful links to additional information on water conservation.

Water Conservation Works

Using water wisely is the most economical and environmentally sound way to ensure water is available to meet all critical water needs – including water to support healthy Texas rivers and estuaries.