Nothing has spread awareness about water conservation like the historic drought of 2011.
Through government conservation programs, such as rebates for rainwater harvesting and arid landscaping, some Central Texas cities are beginning to see a decrease in daily per capita water usage.
Rainwater harvesting — capturing and storing rainwater — is not yet subsidized by any major city in Bell County; however, landowners are beginning to consider rainwater as a legitimate source of water for their households.
Rural Bell County resident Forrest Gist said boastfully that he and his adult son, Steven Gist, have gone nine years without paying a water bill.
On a cold January afternoon, the retired psychiatrist and commercial illustrator fills a small glass from his kitchen faucet and slides it across the kitchen counter.
“Try that,” he said. “Good as any water you’ll ever taste.”
The water is pure, odorless and free of chemicals.
About a week before, that water traveled across his roof, passed along his gutters, through a system of wire screens and into a 10,000-gallon tank next to his house south of Belton.
Before it comes out of the faucet, the water flows into a small pump house, where it is pushed through four purifiers — micron-filters, charcoal and ultraviolet radiation.
Gist said his family of five uses 50 to 75 gallons a day. Between their 6,000-square-foot roof and 17,000 gallons of storage space — at 3,000 gallons per inch of rain — one good rainstorm will last them almost an entire year.
“Four inches of rain will fill the entire system,” Gist said. “I’ve never run out of water.”
Installing the system cost Gist about $25,000; however, he said he will never have to pay for water again.
“After that, you don’t have cost,” he said.
The electricity for the jacuzzi pump and the cost of changing filters — about four times annually — are both minimal, Gist said.
Most of the cost goes into the storage containers, which are about $1 per gallon or $1,000 for a 1,000-gallon tank.
Most houses have gutters and if kept clean, they are already equipped to capture rainwater.
“We all get caught up in exactness and things, but the truth is, if it’s a hole, the water will fall through,” Gist said.
When his son, Steven Gist, built a house next door, the trained architect designed it to capture rainwater.
You don’t have to rebuild your house to capture water, Steven Gist said.
“Start small, and add redundancy later,” he said.
Steven Gist said the only problem was the bank would not finance the house because he did not have a water source.
During two days in early January — when four inches of ran fell across Central Texas — the father and son harvested a combined 27,000 gallons of water.
Since 2006, amid explosive population growth, the city of Austin has decreased its daily per capita gallon usage by 13 percent, said Jill Mayfield, spokeswoman for Austin Water, the city-owned utility.
Austin Water has had a water conservation division since 1986.
In 2010, the Austin City Council adopted a plan to lower the average daily per capita gallon usage from 170 gallons to 149 gallons by 2020.
Killeen uses about 130 gallons per capita per day, according to the city’s 2012 Water and Wastewater Master Plan.
With the prolonged drought of 2011 still visible along Lake Travis and other bodies of water, it has been easy to spread the word about conservation, Mayfield said.
“The drought has brought a lot of awareness,” she said. “With all of those visuals, it is very inspiring to conserve.”
Austin Water offers rebates for low-flow appliances, drought-tolerant landscaping and rainwater harvesting.
Austin currently pays residents 50 cents per gallon for storing rainwater.
Commercial water harvesters, such as H-E-B’s Central Market Grocery stores, also participate in the program on a large scale, Mayfield said.
Most popular are the residential participants, who simply place rain barrels under their gutters and use the runoff to water their plants during dry spells.
“The city has been very aggressive to get people to change their habits and it has been successful,” Mayfield said.
“We continue to have a wide participation with rainwater harvesting, especially for landscaping,”
The utility also gives away shower heads and faucets at events or at their main office.
“Essentially, it is a great way to get people to change their habits and think differently about using water,” Mayfield said.
Tim Brown, Bell County commissioner for Precinct 2, has pushed for the county to offer rebates for rainwater harvesting in the unincorporated areas of Bell County, although the issue has not caught on.
“We used to do this years and years ago,” said Brown, a longtime Bell County resident. “A lot of the old farmhouses had cisterns, and people conserved simply because it was the reality of their place and time.”
In the 1990s, Central Texas experienced 24 percent population growth and 30 percent growth between 2000 and 2010, according to U.S. census data.
“That population trend is going to continue, and just remember, that water supply ain’t going up,” Brown said.
Bell County sits over the Trinity and Edwards aquifers, and most residents living outside of municipal water districts get water from underground wells.
Springs fed by both of the aquifers have begun to dry up, which is the canary in the coal mine for the water shortage problem, Brown said.
“Back when the population was small, you could pretty much count on groundwater,” Brown said. “Now, we’re taking more water out than mother nature can put back in.”
For rural properties, such as Gist’s, rainwater harvesting makes a lot of sense, Brown said.
“In some of these areas, where they don’t have a water supply corporation, you either have to drill a well or you have to do something else, like investing in a rainwater collection system, because it is really their only alternative,” he said.
Brown said most of the power to regulate water conservation comes from the municipalities, which sell the water.
“From our standpoint, (rebates) are all we got,” he said.
Brown said there is no one solution to the state’s water shortage problem, but conservation will play an important role.
“I think we’re going to have to get educated,” he said. “We’re gonna have to start realizing that we can’t use water the way we used to.”