Articles

Council Members: Water Buyers Should Share City’s Rationing Pain

Chris Moran, The Houston ChronicleNovember 29, 2011 in Articles

Because Houston has restricted use by its own residents, neighboring cities that buy Houston water ought to consider how they use it, some City Council members say.

Houston has limited lawn watering within the city limits to twice a week since August. The Chronicle reported Sunday that there are no such limits on residents of neighboring communities whose city halls or water agencies resell water purchased from Houston.

“When somebody doesn’t conserve, it greatly affects another community” during a drought, said Councilwoman Sue Lovell, a member of the city’s Water Resource Management Committee. “I think we also must at least push the communities that we sell water to conserve water.”

The city’s Public Works and Engineering Department sent a letter to various cities and districts in September asking them to “look for opportunities to reduce water consumption and pursue comparable conservation efforts” to Houston’s restrictions.

Nonetheless, in Pearland, Bellaire, Baytown and other municipalities, water authorities and utility districts continue to resell Houston water without mandatory restrictions.

Lake drawn down

One way Houston has responded to the drought is by drawing water from Lake Conroe. The resulting sunken water level has caused some complaints that business is hurt because of fewer visitors or even physical lack of access to restaurants that can be approached only by boat.

Any conservation that would slow the drawdown of the lake would help the community around it, said Stew Darsey, president of the Greater Conroe/Lake Conroe Area Chamber of Commerce. However, he said he has no problem with Houston not asking its customer cities to cut back.

“Houston’s short of water for a lot of reasons,” said Darsey, but he does not figure that other cities’ profligacy is one of them. “Houston’s short of water because they have water leaking.”

At one point last summer, the city’s Public Works and Engineering Department had a backlog of more than 1,000 water main breaks, causing the loss of millions of gallons a day, a point Clear Brook City Municipal Utility District general manager Chris Clark seized on.

“Look, you’ve got a thousand leaks, and that is a far greater problem than your constituents using water in a silly manner,” said Clark, whose agency serves 23,000 people.

Old contracts

Houston cannot demand that its customer cities restrict water use. In most cases, the water sales are covered by decades-long contracts that govern the terms of the sales. In addition, imposing restrictions could be complicated because many customer cities do not rely exclusively on Houston water.

Councilwoman Melissa Noriega, also a member of the water committee, said the area’s cities ought to conserve water in the spirit of regional cooperation, regardless of contractual obligations.

“What the letter of the law is might not be the same thing as the right thing to do,” she said. “We’re all in this together. If we use all the water, we’re all in the same boat, with or without a place to float it.”

Councilman Mike Sullivan, who chairs the water committee, previously said he intends to have the committee take up the matter in January.