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June 22nd, 2009
Freethought San Marcos: A problem in search of solutions

Freethough San Marcos: A column

A city council majority recently voted to ease watering restrictions to permit residents who miss their approved watering day (under the water conservation regulations now in place) to water on a weekend day. Residents will be on the honor system to follow the new rule if the change receives final approval at some later date.

Of course, Mayor Narvaiz and councilmember Pam Couch stood up for our residents’ honorableness in following the new “honor system” regulation. That’s the sort of self-serving claptrap we expect from politicians who believe that being obsequious will curry favor with the voters and make themselves seem like nice politicians. What such decisions assure is that water conservation regulations will not be enforced.

What we need in San Marcos is a serious, fact-based discussion of how to conserve water, not how to make it easier to squander it.

I have wondered for many years why city codes allow sprinkler systems at all. They are among the most wasteful ways to water lawns. Sprinklers use about twice as much water as does hand-watering. We lived in a house for twenty years that had an underground sprinkler system when we bought it. Fortunately, the sprinkler system did not work well. For a few months, my wife tried to water our lawn using above-ground sprinklers, but the large size of the lawn made this a nearly full-time job. Soon, we realized that both we and the environment would be better served to allow native species to take over our lawn.

Some city regulations recognize that watering in early morning and in the evening–the cooler parts of the day–helps conserve water because there is less evaporation then than during the hotter times of day. But regulations don’t recognize that watering on windy days is also a waste of water because wind increases evaporation. While spraying water on sidewalks, driveways, and into the street is an obvious waste and prohibited by city regulations, they appear to be little enforced.

City rules recognize that hand watering, using drip irrigation, soaker hoses, and watering by bucket waste much less water than do sprinklers, and such methods are allowed at any time under Stage 1 water conservation rules. But requiring sensors for sprinkler systems that will automatically turn off the water is not in the regulations, nor is there a regulation requiring lawn grass to be maintained an inch or two taller than is customary around town. And there is no prohibition of catching lawn clippings and throwing them in the garbage.

Using sensors, having longer grass, and allowing grass clippings to fall in place as mulch are relatively easy to implement at minimal cost, and they would conserve water. Sensors could turn off the sprinklers after an adequate amount of water has been used. Longer grass conserves water by lessening evaporation. Lawn clippings that are allowed to stay on the lawn become mulch, helping the ground retain what water it gets.

For at least the last 25 years, San Marcos has officially encouraged xeriscaping to reduce water use. Xeriscaping refers to the conservation of water through landscaping with native species that are adapted to the level of naturally available water normally present in the environment. Since about half of all water used goes onto our lawns and landscapes, xeriscaping makes sense. But there are other advantages over conventional yards as well:  less maintenance, no need for fertilizers or pesticides, largely dought-proof landscapes, no pollution caused by lawnmowers and other gasoline-powered machinery, and better wildlife habitat.

If eliminating new underground sprinkler systems does not prevent the planting of new lawns with high water-requiring species such as St. Augustine grass, regulations may need revision to create a list of acceptable grasses that can be planted in San Marcos. In Port Arthur, where I grew up, annual rainfall averages over 57 inches, and St. Augustine grass is the standard. However, growing St. Augustine grass in San Marcos makes no sense if water conservation is the goal. San Marcos has just over 37 inches of rain on average, and less than 31 inches of rain falling in half the years. The city should consider giving incentives to current homeowners who have lawns that require regular watering, to encourage them to convert to water-conserving landscapes.

Countless resources are available on the internet and at the library for those interested in contributing to water conservation in this way. Much of the information provided above comes from H2O Conserve, a program run by a consortium of four organizations concerned with environmental issues–the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, GRACE, Food & Water Watch, and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future–and from Eartheasy.

What concerns me most, however, is that the city has not done all it can do to reduce water consumption through education. If people can see appealing landscaping ideas, they may opt for them instead of choosing automatic sprinklers. But I can find no necessity for allowing new automatic sprinklers to be introduced into the city. The water waste they create should be viewed as intolerable in a climate that is classified as semi-arid. When we have a prolonged drought, such as the one we are now experiencing, the importance of water conservation becomes especially apparent. During 2008, we had barely more than 17 inches of rain. We have received rain at about half the average annual rainfall this year, which could result in even less rain than we received in 2008.

A recent article in the Austin American-Statesman about a Blanco County rancher who has used wise conservation practices to restore his ranch and restore the flow to several natural springs and creeks is evidence that we can do more through education and example. One of the blights on the hill country is the invasion of ashe juniper trees (often called cedar trees). They are a non-native species that use an incredible amount of water, stealing it from our aquifers, springs, streams, and native plants and trees. A well-thought-out program to reduce or eliminate junipers from the city, particularly the Edwards Aquifer recharge area, would benefit the aquifer and help make it possible for native species to thrive in our area, just as it has done for the Blanco County rancher.

It is unfortunate that we don’t have a majority of our city council committed as much to enhancing our local environment as they are to enhancing the corporations and developers to whom they give unlimited public resources. We need a city council serious about water conservation and enhancement of our environment, but it appears we are getting only what we will settle for. While my family has taken many positive steps to conserve water, there is much more that we can do, and we plan to do more. We will try to act responsibly in conserving water while we wait for the city council to adopt more responsible public policies that will help our entire community become more aware of the need for water conservation and understand that we can all be part of the solution.

© Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins

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6 thoughts on “Freethought San Marcos: A problem in search of solutions

  1. Interesting timing, as I had to turn off a sprinkler at one of our elected officials’ houses on Saturday morning, when I could not get them to answer the door.

    Sadly, this was far from the only house with sprinklers running on Saturday morning. In addition to sprinklers, I saw a couple of power washers going and on Sunday afternoon, there was a steady stream of water running off into the storm drains, from the plants being watered at Lowes.

    So much for the “honorableness” of our citizens. Perhaps what they meant to say was that the people who are going to conserve water are going to do so regardless of the ordinance and the people who are going to waste it will also do so regardless of the ordinance.

  2. For my children I liked to keep a band of St. Augustine around the house so they could play bare-footed and chigger-free. That same band would quell an approaching grass fire before it could reach the house. I guess I could have paved over that band, but, (oh! drat!) it would have been impervious cover. Having tested my utility-supplied water, much of which comes from the same source as Lamar’s, and read the utility’s water quality report, I hate to use that crap on my lawn or garden, and certainly do not drink it. My garden is much happier with condensate from my air conditioner and rain water collection. I have no clue if this clueless city permits the use of bath-shower-dishwater (gray water) for landscape irrigation, but it should. Over two decades ago, many predicted that water would be the parameter to limit growth in this region of the state. We were correct despite the best efforts of LCRA, GBRA, etc. Unfortunately, the politicans allowed developers to define growth as more cheap houses on expensive lots, rather than growth as providing employment opportunities so that residents of Gravel Street and other equal streets could grow economically and upgrade their circumstances and properties in situ. Lamar mentioned a guy in Blanco County who has increased stream flow by cutting down cedar trees. That is quite nice and it works, however I do not know how he got by without shooting the two species of birds that find ashe junipers to be their natural and protected habitat. I agree to chop cedars trees (they make fine fence posts) and chase those birds up to the slightly more virulent tree-huggers in Travis County. After this rant, my major point–there are too many conflicting laws, rules and regulations that prevent the average guy in this area from providing what is best for himself and his loved ones.

    If water is in short supply and of poor quality, go back two decades and throw darts. It did not need to be the way that it is now.

  3. If the watering hours were expanded to from 6pm to 10am you could have satisfied most people and still had an enforcable ordinance. I doubt the water lost to evaporation would have been affected that much by adding the two hours earlier in the evening. I guess the reason for the moratorium on watering from midnight to 6am might have to do with sprinklers running unattended… but that seems to veer into the territory of micro-management.

  4. Its amazing to me that everyone recognizes that our depleted water supply in Central Texas is a primary concern and will have one of the greatest impacts to our quality of life in the coming years, yet no one wants to suggest real solutions. It would be unfair to single out the City of San Marcos for their unenforceable watering restrictions; few municipalities bother to write the codes in an enforceable manner, and even fewer allocate the resources to enforce them. Our elected leaders speak of the ‘honor system’. Anyone who has worked in law enforcement or code enforcement appreciates that our citizens ‘honor’ the law only if they know there’s a reasonable chance of getting caught if they don’t honor it. Our city can be a leader in water conservation (even more so than Austin’s bloated water conservation department) by enacting water conservation rules that are meaningful and enforceable. As long as our longterm water supply is in jeopardy, it is reasonable to ask residents and businesses to restrict all nonessential watering. It never ceases to amaze me that we waste potable water on landscape irrigation, water features, and even to flush our toilets. We need to embrace realistic water conservation goals. I spend zero gallons of water on my yard (they’re all native plants). I have used approx. 9000 gallons of potable water in the last 10 months with a zero reduction in my quality of life.

  5. I agree with every suggestion and can add some more. How about requiring all new houses, apartments and businesses to install low flow toilets and shower heads? How about tankless hot water heaters? Solar if possible? All new developments that plan to landscape should be required to xeriscape and plant buffalo grass. How about all these bright minds at Texas State working to develop an affordable water collection system for everyone? Our ancestors had a good idea with cisterns.
    The mayor obviously has the idea that “growth at any cost” is always a good thing. I grew up here and the changes I see greatly disturb me. San Marcos is a very special place and the disregard of city officials for the gravity of the problem is appalling. The citizens must take the initiative before the day comes when no more water comes out of the tap and you can’t flush your commode.

  6. All new construction does require low flow toilets and fixtures. Some municipalities offer rebates for exchanging old toilets for new ones, as well as free low flow fixtures and auditing tools. As for the watering restrictions, I drove through Nevada street and Castle gate neighborhood off of Craddock the other day; many of the residents there apparently haven’t heard of the watering restrictions.

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