By Kate Zerrenner
San Antonio and Austin just called a cease-fire on a taco war over which city invented the breakfast taco. Both make excellent tacos: from the traditional chorizo and egg taco in San Antonio to a free-range egg and organic spinach taco in Austin. But this debate was about more than just tacos — it was about the history and culture of these two neighboring cities.
Only 80 miles apart, San Antonio and Austin have some significant differences. San Antonio is known as “Military City USA” largely due to its huge military bases, but it’s also known for other industries like biotech, military medical centers, and a dynamic business relationship with Mexico. The capital city’s economy, on the other hand, is based on high-tech, entertainment, state government, and the behemoth University of Texas at Austin. San Antonio is one of the largest Hispanic-majority cities in the country (at 63 percent in 2010), while Austin’s diversity comes in large part from people flocking to the Capitol from all over the state and country. As someone with roots in both San Antonio and Austin, I appreciate both — I’m an equal opportunity taco lover.
But both cities share an important commonality: exploding population growth. The population of the 13 counties that make up the Austin-San Antonio corridor is estimated to increase by 77 percent by 2050, to 6.8 million people. Extreme growth brings intense pressure on resources and services, particularly water in this drought-prone region. Both cities are standing up to that challenge through careful water conservation measures and by advancing clean energy.
San Antonio and Austin are taco and water winners in Texas
One thing San Antonians and Austinites could probably agree on is tacos are better here than in other parts of the state — and the same goes for water conservation. San Antonio and Austin are both primarily reliant on one water source: the Edwards Aquifer and Colorado River, respectively. During a drought, cities with one main water source would be in dire straits if they weren’t investing in conservation. Fortunately, these cities are.
The San Antonio Water System (SAWS) instituted a number of tough water conservation measures and began innovative, cross-sectoral collaboration with the local electric utility, CPS Energy, one of its largest users. Consequently, when the most recent drought hit Texas in 2010, San Antonio was more prepared than many other areas. The city was also faster to enact next-stage drought restrictions, reaching a point where households watered their lawns only once every two weeks. As a result of conservation efforts, San Antonio went from 149 gallons of water per person per day (GPCD) in 2008 to 121 GPCD in 2014.
Austin also started to adopt more aggressive conservation goals just prior to the aforementioned drought. Recent efforts by Austin Water have resulted in some impressive water savings: the city’s use decreased from 171 GPCD in 2008 to 125 GPCD in 2014. And, despite an estimated 110 people who move to the city each day, water usage has virtually remained flat while the population has doubled.
Improved data on water usage are closely connected to conservation. Data from Pecan Street, Inc., a research and development organization based at the University of Texas at Austin, has shown that irrigation systems for lawns are a huge water user — in some cases up to around 90 percent of a household’s water use. Armed with that information, and wanting to get the most bang for its buck, SAWS has decided to allocate the bulk of its rebates and incentives to help people reduce their outdoor water use. And both cities’ water utilities also partner with Pecan Street to enable residential customers to get real-time data on water usage through the use of new smart technologies.
Clean energy plans contribute to conservation
It may not be immediately apparent why clean energy progress matters to water conservation. But since traditional energy generation sources like coal and natural gas are very thirsty resources, a faster than business-as-usual transition to cleaner energy means preserving water resources that would otherwise be used for power generation. For example, according to modeling by CNA Corporation’s Institute for Public Research, with a 40 percent carbon cap and a speedy transition from coal to clean energy, Texas could see a 45 percent reduction in water consumption by 2040.
Fortunately, both CPS Energy and Austin Energy, the cities’ municipal electric utilities, are way ahead of the curve when it comes to transitioning to a clean energy future and cutting emissions from the power sector. With a 20 percent renewable energy by 2020 goal, CPS Energy is fast-tracking the closure of its dirtiest coal plant, purchased a cleaner natural gas plant, and is the largest municipal wind purchaser in the U.S. Plus, its planned solar projects will be among the largest municipal solar projects in the country. Austin Energy has an ambitious goal of 55 percent renewable energy by 2025, which it will achieve largely through wind and solar investments (like its recent deal, declared the “Cheapest Solar Ever”). Both utilities also have robust energy efficiency programs, and Austin established one of the first green building codes in the country back in 1990.
San Antonio and Austin are justifiably proud of both their breakfast tacos and their water conservation. You can get a great, traditional breakfast taco in San Antonio and a great, “weird” taco in Austin. But these cities are better together — as San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor said, “It's no longer 'San Antonio vs. Austin' but 'San Antonio and Austin.’” And just as the history of Texas is in our tacos, it’s also in our water. A little friendly competition pushes us to be better stewards of our culture and natural resources, and it’s worth remembering that water conservation benefits existing and future generations of Texans. So, what do you say we talk about this over some tacos?
From Environmental Defense Fund's Texas Clean Air Matters Blog.