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DROUGHT RESPONSE: Conservation Tools for Water Managers

Water supplies were dwindling, temperatures were soaring, and record peak day demands were experienced day after day. This is the situation many water utilities experienced during the summer of 2011. During a drought when supplies are limited, what tools are available to a water manager?

Drought Contingency Plans:These plans are more than just regulatory requirements by the TCEQ.  A well-crafted drought contingency plan can be the playbook for water managers as they encounter a drought. Minimally the drought contingency plan should:

  • Define the roles and responsibilities of the drought management team (Mayor, Public Works Officials, Media Staff, etc.)
  • Be based on a detailed assessment of water demands by customer class and water supply facility information
  • Contain an Education/Communication element
  • Contain conservation and drought management activities including supply management triggers based on percent of supply or system capacity and responses to curb demand on a short term basis.

Voluntary demand reduction methods can result in up to 101percent usage reductions depending on customer participation while Mandatory strategies can account for up to 402percent demand reductions based on the severity of measures.  Drought strategies can be developed by customer class for residential, commercial/retail, industrial and outdoor landscape user classifications.  Effective conservation and drought strategies are specific to the customer.  Institutional and industrial customers may be able to reduce cooling tower, boiler feed and process water usage while residential customers focus on outdoor water use because droughts in Texas tend to occur during the hot dry summer months.

An effective Education and Communication program will serve as the foundation to accomplish a successful drought response.  The goal of the Education Program is to communicate the reality of the situation, voice the severity of the situation and engender community support for the necessary actions.  Each Education and Communication Program should minimally address the following:

  • Provide actionable information to key decision makers
  • Encourage governmental agencies, institutions (hospitals, universities) and the business community to provide leadership
  • Provide detailed customer specific information to industry, schools, commercial and retail communities
  • Provide frequent briefings to the news media
  • Provide information to the general public on a regular basis

Although drought contingency plans are only required to be updated every five years, following a drought is a great opportunity to review and modify a drought contingency plan. Important questions to ask are whether triggers began early enough to have an impact, did the strategies implemented result in the water savings expected? Did the plan provide the flexibility for city staff to implement strategies as necessary? Did the community leaders support the necessary actions?

Importantly, utility managers must be proactive rather than reactive.  Drought plan implementation strategies should be planned at least six months prior to their actual implementation.  Long term water efficiency measures can mitigate the impacts of a drought by reducing the severity of cutbacks in demand during droughts. On-going water efficiency can also produce benefits in reducing base and peak demands that require expensive additional capacity, reducing future water supply and infrastructure costs.

Freese and Nichols is a member of the Alliance for Water Efficiencywhich is a resource for water professionals. If you would like any information about drought contingency plans or long term water efficiency programs contact Simone Kiel or Jeff Taylor.  This article was co-written by Ms. Carole Baker, Chair of the Board of the Alliance for Water Efficiency with input from Freese and Nichols water resources engineer Jeremy Rice, LEED GA.

  1. Douglas S. Kenney et al “Use and Effectiveness of Municipal Water Restrictions during Drought in Colorado”, 2004.
  2. State of California Department of Water Resources “Urban Drought Guidebook 2008 Updated Edition”, 2008.

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