Fort Worth delays vote on permanent water restrictions

04/01/2014 10:28 PM

04/02/2014 12:28 AM

By a 5-4 vote, the City Council on Tuesday night delayed deciding on a proposed ordinance that would make twice-a-week landscape watering restrictions permanent.

Councilman W.B. “Zim” Zimmerman asked for the delay during a pre-council meeting, saying that Fort Worth needs time to educate residents about the change and that he has questions about the ordinance.

“Who is going to enforce it? Not code [enforcement officers],” Zimmerman said. “Our code officers can’t handle the stuff they have going on right now, so guess who is going to enforce it? It is neighbors against neighbors.”

He had other questions, such as how much of a burden the ordinance will be on people who don’t have automatic sprinklers.

Mayor Betsy Price and Councilmen Sal Espino, Joel Burns and Dennis Shingleton, however, favored moving forward with the current ordinance and voted against the delay.

“We should try this plan and … we can continue to look for ideas and evaluate it,” said Price, saying conservation must be a priority.

The five voting for the delay were Zimmerman, Jungus Jordan, Kelly Allen Gray, Gyna Bivens and Danny Scarth.

The delay is for just one week because the city must submit a drought contingency and water conservation plan to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Texas Water Development Board by May 1. The council must approve the plans before they go to the state.

Since Jan. 1, only 2.19 inches of precipitation has fallen at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, making this the eighth-driest start to a year on record through March 31.

Most of the rain came last month, when the airport recorded 1.45 inches. That is about 3 inches below normal, making it the 35th-driest March on record.

The West Fork of the Trinity River, which flows through Eagle Mountain Lake and Lake Bridgeport, has also started the year drier than at any time since the high drought years of 1950s.

Residents speak out

In the proposed ordinance, residential addresses ending in an even number would water on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and residential addresses ending in an odd number would water on Thursdays and Sundays. Locations such as apartment complexes, businesses and parks would water on Tuesdays and Fridays.

A survey conducted a year ago by the Tarrant Regional Water District found that 69 percent of residents supported the cutbacks. But some people are not convinced.

Blake Woodard of Fort Worth said the ordinance treats residents like children. He represented about 20 residents at Tuesday’s meeting.

“The current designated water days do not fit in with my busy life or the busy life of my neighbors. They do not allow me to use conservation principles that I have used for well over a decade in my house, and they are causing me to use more water,” Woodard said of the restrictions in place because of the drought.

He proposed letting residents water only twice a week during droughts, but either Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. That way, he said, homeowners and businesses could water when their lawns need it most, account for rainy days and better fit watering into their schedules.

Several community leaders came to support the proposed ordinance, however, including Victor Henderson, president of the Tarrant Regional Water District board, and Bill Thornton, president and CEO of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce.

“Water conservation isn’t just something we need to do because it is the right thing to do. We are relying on water conservation,” Henderson said.

The new ordinance would impose a maximum fine of $2,000 for irrigating on an off-day or for watering between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. each day. Compliance would focus on education, offering a “friendly reminder” first, followed by a violation notice, then locking the irrigation system and assessing administrative fees, city officials said.

A person could also be fined for knowingly or recklessly causing a “substantial amount of water” to fall on areas other than the lawn, such as a street or a sidewalk; for watering while it’s raining; and for having broken or missing sprinkler heads.

The ordinance would not apply to hand-watering, drip irrigation or soaker hoses, and it would have variances for special circumstances, such as the establishment of sod.

Similar limits in Dallas

The restrictions discussed Tuesday are similar to the water conservation ordinance first approved by the Dallas City Council in 2001 and amended several times since.

Dallas made twice-weekly restrictions permanent in 2012, said Carole Davis, the city’s water conservation division manager.

“For the most part, residents have responded very well. We haven’t had really any major push-back to this,” Davis said. “Folks are starting to see that their lawns will survive on the two-times-weekly watering.”

Dallas residents can’t water between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. from April 1 to Oct. 31, must repair broken or missing sprinkler heads, can’t water during any form of precipitation, and can’t allow sprinkler systems to water driveways, sidewalks and streets.

“It is important that we all work together as a region for water conservation,” Davis said. “It is an important issue.”

Water rates to rise

Even with conservation, water rates are expected to go up in the future and in upcoming budgets because when the city sells less water, it makes less money. Also the cost of raw water continues to rise, Fort Worth officials say.

Still, conservation will delay costly water infrastructure and expansion projects, and it will cause water rates to increase more slowly than they would otherwise, according to city administrators.

In fiscal 2013, 83 percent of overall revenue was based on the amount of water used and 17 percent was based on fixed fees, depending on meter size.

To deal with that uncertainty, the city began a five-year plan to shift more revenue to the fixed-base fee so the budget relies less on the volatile nature of consumption.

In fiscal 2014, 19 percent of water revenue is fixed, and that number will rise to 25 percent by fiscal 2018 as part of the five-year plan.

Water rates also go up in stages as residents use more water. Though the city raised water rates in 2014, those using the least water did not see an increase.

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

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