Imagine Austin Annual Report      September 2019

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The Sustainably Manage Our Water Resources (SMOWR) priority program focuses on sustainable management of Austin’s water resources; water, wastewater, reclaimed water, and storm drainage systems; floodplains; and the water quality of our lakes, rivers, streams, and aquifers. This priority program recognizes that water resources are vital to Austin’s quality of life and viability as a city. Bringing together existing efforts allows us to move forward with more integrated strategies that span a comprehensive range of water resource issues such as supply, quality, conservation, public health, and recreation

Sustainable Water


Program Champions:

Teresa Lutes, 

Matt Hollon

Departments: Austin Water, Watershed Protection


The Water Forward Plan, led by Austin Water, is our community’s 100-year roadmap for a sustainable water future. The plan’s transformative vision reflects a substantial multi-year effort. Austin’s City Council adopted Water Forward in November 2018 as the culmination of extensive collaboration with our community, a citizen task force, and across multiple City departments, Boards and Commissions, and regional entities.

The plan embraces innovative strategies to address our community’s future water challenges. The plan incorporates Austin Water’s efforts to implement advanced metering infrastructure to provide customers with more real time water use data and help identify potential customer leaks. The plan promotes meeting non-potable demands with non-potable source waters through centralized and decentralized strategies. As Austin grows, new development can implement onsite reuse strategies or can connect to the City’s centralized reclaimed water system to incrementally meet growing demands.

A key component of the plan is an Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) facility to save available water during wet times and store it underground for use during drought or other

Water Forward - Our 100 Year Water Plan

emergency situations. Storage strategies such as ASR stretch Austin’s existing surface water supplies and provide our community self-sufficiency through a locally-controlled second source of supply.

Austin Water is implementing the plan as part of an adaptive management approach. The plan will be updated on a five-year cycle to incorporate information about changing conditions.

Lower Onion Creek Flood Safety, Ecosystem Restoration, and Recreation

In 2019, the Watershed Protection Department, in partnership with the Parks and Recreation Department, successfully completed the transformation of 290 acres of floodplain in the Yarrabee Bend area of Lower Onion Creek into an amenity for the community. This project, a partnership between the City of Austin and the US Army Corps of Engineers, began in 1999 with the first acquisitions of houses deep in the floodplain near the creek. By 2017, 483 properties within this project area had been acquired and financial assistance provided to relocate the families to homes outside the floodplain. The City then worked closely with the Army Corps to refine the vision for the area and develop design plans.  Construction began in 2018 and 100 acres of the area was converted into a park with pavilions, picnic tables, trails, and a designated creek crossing to connect trails on both sides of the creek. The remaining 190 acres are undergoing floodplain restoration with widespread planting of native grasses and trees and adoption of a minimized maintenance routine that will allow the health of the riparian area to improve.

Water Quality Trends Report

The City of Austin has been collecting routine water quality data in its creeks and reservoirs for 25+ years, but to date, an overview of temporal trends has not been compiled. During this period, Austin has seen unprecedented population growth and increased urbanization, which generally would translate to degraded water quality. By aggregating chemical, biological and physical data that has been collected using similar methods and locations for this extended period of record (1994-2018), a robust assessment of temporal trends was made.


The receiving water reservoirs of the Colorado River, Lake Austin, and Lady Bird Lake have maintained relatively consistent overall water quality with the exception of an increase in blue green algae counts. 


Austin’s creeks have also maintained consistent water quality during this period, and in many measures, are actually showing some recovery trends.  The regulatory environment was assessed at a high-level by dividing development up into pre-regulation and other regulations (later water quality regulations and development outside Austin’s jurisdiction), showing that those that were developed before water quality regulations were in place were consistently lower-scoring than the other categories. 

These results are likely due to a combination of long-term recovery from larger-scale degradation that occurred over the past 100 years, construction-phase management and other best practices by government and the private sector, water quality 

retrofits, and effective education and outreach efforts. Identification of key solutions and better cause-and-effect relationships are recommended via more targeted studies and analysis efforts.

Platinum Recognition for Water Conservation

In July 2018, Austin Water’s Conservation Program achieved a Platinum rating on the Alliance for Water Efficiency’s G480 Leaderboard. The G480 Water Conservation Program Operation and Management Standard is part of the American Water Works Association’s G-series of voluntary management standards that demonstrate outcome-oriented practices and policies that go above established regulations and set a benchmark for excellence, including:

  • Dedicated staff for conservation efforts

  • Conservation planning

  • Integrated resources planning

  • Public information and education

  • Water waste ordinance

  • Universal metering practices

  • Non-promotional water rate

  • Monthly or bimonthly billing based on metered use

  • Landscape efficiency program

  • Water loss control program

As an independent industry advocate, the Alliance for Water Efficiency evaluates submissions from member agencies and awards platinum, gold, or silver recognition to indicate level of compliance with the G480 standard. Austin’s grade of Platinum indicates 100 percent compliance with all recommended best practices for an effective conservation program. Austin Water became the fifth agency in the nation to complete the rigorous recognition process and the third to achieve a Platinum rating.



Impacts of Climate Change on Utility Operations

Climate scientists project that due to climate change, the Austin region will see longer periods of drought punctuated by increasingly heavy rain events. The Austin region is already experiencing impacts of changing patterns of droughts and floods.

In early  2018, the Austin region was experiencing high temperatures and extremely dry conditions. From January-August 2018, the Highland Lakes received the fourth lowest inflows since they were completed in 1942. Then in October, the region received heavy rainfall leading to flooding along the Llano river that drains into the Colorado River. The flood carried an unprecedented amount of silt, dirt, and debris into the river, impacting Austin Water’s ability to produce water that met clarity, or turbidity, requirements leading to the issuance of a city-wide boil water notice. 


Extreme weather events such as these make utility operations increasingly challenging and call for enhanced adaptive management strategies to manage these emerging risks. Some of the adaptive management strategies have been identified in the Water Forward plan. Additionally, Austin Water is continuing evaluation of enhanced treatment strategies and broadened communication strategies.

Barton Creek meets the dirty waters of the rain-swollen Lady Bird Lake 10/23/2018 [pc: Jay Janner / American-Statesman]

Atlas 14

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in partnership with many other federal, state, and local agencies, has completed a historical rainfall intensity study called Atlas 14 (volume 11 for Texas). Rainfall intensities are used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), local communities, and the development community to determine flood risk, design drainage infrastructure, and to make floodplain maps. Rainfall intensities for the State of Texas were last assessed by the United States Geological Survey in 1994. Atlas 14 is an update of this data that incorporates almost a quarter century of rainfall data collected statewide since the last study, up to and including Hurricane Harvey.


The Atlas 14 study shows that portions of Texas, including Austin, are more likely to experience larger storms than previously thought. This means that what we used to think of as a 500-year rain event is more likely a 100-year rain event (a 1% chance of happening in any given year as opposed to a 0.2% chance). Our new understanding of flood risk means that more buildings, roadways, and storm drain systems are vulnerable to flooding. Approximately 3% of all buildings in Austin, more than 7,200 homes and businesses, are susceptible to flooding from a 100-year flood.

The City is taking a proactive approach to respond to this more accurate assessment of flood risk. It is critical that we continue to ensure that future development is built to be sufficiently resilient to protect the lives and properties of our residents. To that end, we have proposed City code amendments to reflect our new understanding of flood risk. At the same time, we are initiating a process to produce new floodplain studies for every watershed in the City. Learn more about this multi-year process at

Texas is expecting larger storms and increased flood risk