North Texas cities improving water conservation efforts

Fort Worth, Dallas and Arlington are making strides in conserving water, but they could still do a lot more, according to two environmental groups.

North Texas used more water per capita than other areas of the state and did little to conserve water until 2007. That's when the Legislature began requiring cities to make detailed plans for water conservation, including setting goals for reducing their per-capita consumption.

"Cities like Dallas and Fort Worth are beginning to go in the right direction," said Ken Kramer, state director of the Sierra Club.

The Sierra Club and National Wildlife Federation analyzed the water conservation plans for 19 Texas cities and compared several areas: water use per capita and goals for reducing it; how strongly their water rates encouraged conservation; how many out-of-date toilets the cities replaced; how much they spent on conservation programs; their watering and irrigation ordinances; and their educational programs.

Fort Worth and Arlington lag behind places like San Antonio and El Paso, which have led the state in conservation for years. But they're ahead of places like Tyler and Brownsville, which lack even basics like multi-tiered water rates.

"The extent of those programs does vary greatly," said Myron Hess, manager of Texas water programs at the wildlife federation.

Texas' population is expected to double within a few decades, but it's becoming more expensive to find new water supply sources, so conservation is a key component of the state's water plan. If the cities reduce their water consumption enough, they can avoid expensive new water projects like lakes and pipelines.

"The best and cheapest source of water is the one that's already on tap," Kramer said.

The report didn't analyze the cities' leak-detection programs, but Kramer said those play a major role. Fort Worth lost 14.5 percent of its water either to leaks or defective meters in 2008. San Antonio began aggressively fixing leaks a couple of years ago, and "it had a dramatic effect," Kramer said.

Mary Gugliuzza, a spokeswoman for the Fort Worth Water Department, said the city plans to strengthen its conservation programs over the next few years. She cautioned that it could be a while before some programs show results, particularly the water-conservation ordinance. "Those really require changes in behavior," she said.

She said the city agrees with the thrust of the study, that it's cheaper to save water than to find new sources.

"In the end, there still is a finite amount of water out there," Gugliuzza said.

The cities are expected to report to the Texas Water Development Board in May.

MIKE LEE, 817-390-7539