Taking Water More Seriously

Texas utility’s multipronged approach to water conservation brings significant benefits.

Taking Water More Seriously

Jessica Woods, Round Rock water conservation coordinator, visits customers to advise them on how to set their irrigation systems for better water efficiency. (Photos contributed by the Round Rock Utilities and Environmental Services Department)

In the drought-prone region between Dallas and Austin, the water utility in Round Rock takes water conservation seriously.

The utility encourages conservation by promoting reuse water, having a tiered rate structure, educating residents on smart irrigation, promoting water-saving appliances with rebates, helping customers find leaks, and actively detecting leaks in the water infrastructure.

The results have been impressive. Peak water use has dropped, even though the city’s population has grown 20%. Total gallons per capita per day dropped 29%, from 206 in 2009 to 146 in 2019.

Decades of reuse

The city has offered reuse water for irrigation since 1998, when a golf course started using it. The program has grown continually since then. It saw a major expansion in 2012, and recently a new hotel tapped the supply for cooling tower makeup water. The city has pumped as much as 2 mgd of reuse water in the summer.

The utility began making other conservation efforts a priority in 2009. One of the first moves was to adopt a tiered rate structure. “We just had one rate, and it was very low,” says Michael Thane, director of the Utilities and Environmental Services Department.

“Our gallons per capita per day were high. People just needed to take water more seriously. We would talk about water conservation, but if your rate structure doesn’t mirror what you are trying to promote via outreach and education, people don’t listen.”

Round Rock typically pumps 15 to 18 mgd in winter and 32 to 35 mgd in summer. Its all-time high was 42 mgd in during the drought of 2011. The highest day in 2020 was 36 mgd. “It’s weather-dependent, but the amount of water we’re using here has not increased, even though we’ve grown a lot,” Thane says. “I think that’s all related to water conservation. Our community has gotten a lot smarter on water usage.”  

Advice for heavy users

The city first adopted a two-tiered structure; it has since evolved to four tiers. Most residential customers fall into the first two tiers. Customers in the higher tiers often are referred to the city’s water conservation coordinator, Jessica Woods. A state-licensed irrigator, she visits customers to advise them on good practices and on how to maintain or set the controls on their irrigation equipment.

“We’ve had tremendous population growth, and all these new houses have irrigation systems,” Woods says. “Most of the time when I go to someone’s house, it’s because they have an extremely high water bill, and they are just shocked about how much water they use.

“I’m there to prove that they are using that much water and to help them bring their usage down. We just have so many people who are overwatering. I’m a friendly face that goes over and tells them what to do. It’s a lengthy process. We talk to the customers, and they can ask all the questions they want. I always joke that their water bill is paying for the service.”

Rebates for equipment

Round Rock has spent as much as $68,000 a year on rebates to customers who purchased water-saving toilets, washing machines, irrigation upgrades or rainwater harvesting equipment. In some years rebates have also covered lawn aeration and water-saving faucets or showerheads. Sometimes more than 500 customers per year receive rebate.

“One of our most popular rebate programs is toilet replacement,” Woods says. “Because everybody uses the toilet every day, if we can get some of those old high-water-use toilets out of the houses and get new efficient toilets in, then we are automatically reducing water use year-round, every day.”

From 2010 through 2019, 1,469 customers collected rebates for toilets, which covered half the cost up to $500 per home. The city advertises the programs through a newsletter inserted in water bills and distributed as an e-newsletter, through social media accounts and video monitors in city buildings. Woods thinks word-of-mouth also helps. The rebate budget is usually expended before the end of the year.

Water meter upgrade

Over a five-year period, Round Rock upgraded manual reading to a system that is compatible with advanced metering infrastructure. The city first went to drive-by reading and later added antennas and repeater sites. Now, customers have an online portal they can use to pay bills or monitor water usage.

About half of residential customers have registered through the online system. “Probably most of them registered because they wanted to pay their bills online, but we hope they are starting to use it to see how they use their water,” Thane says. “We are also using that system to notify customers when they have leaks.”

Internal monitoring sets off an alarm at the utility when there has been continuous water flow for 24 hours at any meter. The utility gets a list of those meters daily and notifies the customers to minimize wasted water and avoid the risk of property damage.

Minimizing losses

The utility is also proactive about finding leaks in its own pipes. In older parts of the city, Round Rock has been using pipe bursting to replace the old asbestos-cement pipes with high-density polyethylene. Every spring a contractor surveys pipes in parts of the city to find less obvious leaks. The contractor, JBS Associates of Austin, surveyed more than 210,000 linear feet of pipe in 2020 and identified 23 leaks totaling more than 100 gpm.

“We spend about $2 million a year doing that, and our city council wants to do more,” Thane says. “At the end of the day, if we’re reducing leaks in the system, that’s water we paid for, water we treated, water we pumped. If you cut down your water loss, you save money.”

Round Rock tries to track all the water it pumps. “When the fire department has a fire, we estimate how much water they use and we track that,” Thane says. “If there is a construction project, and they are flushing water through a line, we track that. We have the meter loss factor. We track all these things, so we know exactly where our water is going.

“I think we’re down to about 3-4% where we do not know where the water is going. That’s pretty incredible. At the end of the day, it’s all about being efficient and cost-effective in how we operate.” 


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