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Nov 112011

From Green Right Now Reports

Despite suffering the worst single year drought in recorded history, Austin still has leaks in its water conservation efforts — and they’re coming from customers who fail to conserve, according to writer and environmentalist Paul Robbins.

To highlight the problem, Robbins, the editor of the Austin Environmental Directory, has revived the tactic of shaming the city’s highest water consumers, like celebrity bike competitor Lance Armstrong.

Many Austin-area residents use native landscaping to minimize water use.Ear

Earlier this fall, Robbins asked the Austin Water Utility to release the public records for the top residential water users for fiscal 2011.

He suspected that the list of Austin’s top 50 water users would reveal that flagrant water use for landscape irrigation continued this past year as  the vast majority of Texas broiled in record heat, lake levels declined and wildfires raged just east of Austin sparked by the historic drought.

He suspected that while many residents curbed their showers, maintained drought-hardy native landscaping or just let their yards go brown to conserve water, others did the opposite, using more water than ever to maintain their landscaping amid the heat.

Robbins’ concerns proved founded. The list of top users (see the top 10 list below) showed some water users consuming ten times that of typical consumers.

The topic had been raised before in this semi-arid area. In 2008,  the Austin American-Statesman found that many wealthy residents, including bicycle champion Lance Armstrong, were using far more than the average household.

Armstrong used 330,000 gallons of water at his three-acre estate, making him the top water user among residences in 2008, news that made national headlines and prompted an apology from the athlete. He swore to do better.

But apparently, he hasn’t. Armstrong’s compound ranks 8th among the top 10 water users that Robbins identified through public water records for 2011.

Armstrong used about 1.3 million gallons of water to sustain the house and landscape.

He was surpassed this year in this race for top spot by Roger Girling, former owner of Girling Health Care.

Girling used 1.9 million gallons of water over the past year, according to Austin water records. He is followed on the list by venture capitalist Paul Zito, car dealers Doug Maund and Steven Late, and Congressman Michael McCaul, who used 1.4 million gallons of water in the past year.

Girling could not be reached for comment. Lance’s management team did not return phone calls.

Mike Rosen, a spokesman for Congressman McCaul, said the high water use could be the result of a problem with city pipes in the congressman’s West Austin neighborhood. Rosen speculated that leaky city pipes might be to blame because three of the top 10 water users are in McCaul’s immediate neighborhood. Rosen told the Statesman:

“They have repaired underground leaks that went undetected and are looking into what might be causing meters to spike on their entire block…It’s too coincidental.”

Rosen also told a public radio reporter that McCaul’s issues were caused by various leaks related to irrigation and his swimming pool over the last few years.

Steven Late told the newspaper that he and his neighbors are concerned about the water problems because some neighbors have seen their meters continue to tick away, even after shutting off their irrigation system.

But environmentalist Robbins isn’t buying that, or really any of it. He says that water records show consistently high water consumption for these top users, who are consuming more than ten times what would be considered a typical level of use. The average household could be expected to use around 100,000 gallons of water for indoor and outdoor use. he said.

A certain category of frugal water consumers, called lifeline customers, use even less than that, around 25,000 gallons a year, Robbins said. They are rewarded with rates in the lowest tier of Austin’s consumption-based pricing system. That system penalizes high water consumers with escalating rates based on use, but that hasn’t deterred the top users, he said.

Robbins decided to request the water report under public records laws to flag both the water users and what he sees as lack of action by Austin’s public water officials.

“I was calling out the water wasters and the utility. The utility is not responsible for individual behavior but they can serve an educational role, which they’re so far not doing,” he said. Austin Water has the ability to suggest or impose water caps, which could be enforced with fines, Robbins said. But despite the drought, they’ve not enacted any penalties for excess water consumption. (There are penalties for violating conservation guidelines, such as watering on a non-designated day.)

As for the top water customers, Robbins believes they are intransigent because they have the wherewithal to pay as much as they need to for water. And some paid more than $13,000 for the year just for their water bill, he said. Some also had asked the water utility to keep their addresses private, but Robbins was able to get their names under public records law and then confirmed addresses through other public record sources.

He notes that many wealthy residents employ irrigation or landscape services, and may not pay attention to how much water they’re consuming. (That was Armstrong’s defense in 2008.)

But that shouldn’t get them off the hook, Robbins said, because they more than anyone would be able to buy and install water conserving equipment, such as gray water or rainwater collection systems, better controls for irrigation and pool covers.

“If the drought continues,” he said, “we should consider mandatory caps on use.”

Since September, Austin has been under a Stage 2 watering restriction, imposed by the Austin Water Utility. That means residents are only allowed to water their landscape on one day each week on either Tuesday or Friday, and that watering must be done early in the morning or in the evening, to better conserve.

Additional water conservation measures ordered by the utility include:

  • Restaurants are asked not to serve water only when requested by the customer
  • The washing of sidewalks, driveways, parking areas, or other paved areas is prohibited except to alleviate an immediate health or safety hazard
  • Automatic sprinklers can only operate before 10 a.m. on your watering day. Hose-end sprinklers can be used before 10 a.m. and after 7 p.m.
  • If you wash your car at home, do it on your watering day before 10 a.m. and after 7 p.m.
  • You must use a hand-held bucket or a hose equipped with a shutoff nozzle. (No letting the hose water run.) You may use a waterless cleaning product or a commercial car wash to wash your car on any day at any time.
  • No charity car washes unless a waterless cleaning product is used instead of water.
  • No ornamental fountains may be operated except to provide aeration for aquatic life. Automatic fill valves for pools and ponds must be turned off as well.
  • Violations of mandatory watering restrictions will result in an official warning followed by a citation if the violation is not corrected. Citations will be issued in Municipal Court with fines starting at $475.



Name Address Zip 1,000 Gallons Occupation
Robert W. Girling 2501 El Greco Cove



Founder: Girling Health Care
Doug Maund* 4447 River Garden Trail


Owner/manager of Maund autogroup
Neal T. Jones* 3211 Stratford Hills Lane


Paul Zito 4445 1 River Garden Trail



Venture Capitalist
Ava and Steven Late 2007 San Miguel Lane



Owner of BMW of Austin
Linda and Michael McCaul 2004 San Miguel Lane



U.S. Congress Representative
Christopher M. Carrier 3813 Agape Lane



Founder: Acquisition Alternatives, data hardware/maintenance
Lance E. Armstrong* 3404 Foothill Terrace


Champion bicycle racer
Molly O’Connor-Kemp 2408 Mc Call Road



Art maven and oil producer
Shannon Ratliff 3509 Hampton Road



Founder of Ratliff law firm
Texas open records laws allow customers to request utilities redact address and consumption information.  Maund, Jones, and Armstrong did so, but their legal addresses are listed with Travis County voter registration and the Travis County Appraisal District.  Their consumption obviously falls within the range of the customers above and below them.  Occupation based on Internet search.  The City’s fiscal year is Oct. 1 through Sept. 30.