SAWS considers raising penalties for violating drought restrictions

SAN ANTONIO – The San Antonio Water System is considering big changes to its rules for how its customers can water their lawns and how they’re punished for heavy water use during drought periods.

Officials with the city-owned water utility say current drought restrictions are not doing enough to save water. They hope to have many of the proposed changes in place for this summer, including brand-new restrictions to close a “loophole” that allows customers with drip irrigation systems to use much more water than people with sprinklers.

The utility says it’s aiming at reining in some of the biggest water users.

“Nothing about these proposed changes will impact most people at all,” SAWS Vice-President of Conservation Karen Guz said.

The SAWS Board of Trustees heard a presentation on the proposed rules Tuesday morning but decided not to vote until either its June meeting or possibly a special meeting before then.

The San Antonio City Council will also vote on the proposals, likely on June 13.


SAWS has four stages of watering restrictions, which are generally tied to the level of its primary water source, the Edwards Aquifer. The lower the aquifer gets, the less you’re allowed to water your lawn and garden.

The water system is currently at Stage 2, which restricts landscape watering to once a week during four-hour windows in the morning and evening.

But while the rules apply to all SAWS customers, not everyone can get punished for breaking them.

The $137 citations for drought rule-breakers only apply to customers in San Antonio or within five miles of its city limits. SAWS customers who live in other suburban cities, however, can’t get hit with the municipal citation.

Instead, SAWS officials want to start charging violators directly through their SAWS bills, which would allow them to enforce the penalties across the board. They also suggest raising the cost of the penalties for larger users and repeat offenders.

SAWS officials want to raise the penalties for drought rule violators and also change them from citations to fees on the bills. (SAWS)

Customers would be able to appeal the fees through a committee of non-SAWS employees. First-time residential violators would also have the option to avoid the fee by taking an online course.


Under the utility’s Stage 1 and Stage 2 drought restrictions, customers can only water their landscaping once a week. As currently written, Stage 3 restrictions reduce that to once every other week.

As that restriction would affect everyone, including the customers who are already conserving water, Guz said the utility wants to try a different approach.

The every other week watering restriction would be held in reserve for Stage 4, she said. Instead, going to Stage 3 would mean hitting the top 5% of residential water users with an extra surcharge.

For every 1,000 gallons a customer uses above a set threshold—20,000 for residential customers—they are charged an extra $10.47. Last summer, the average single-family home used fewer than 8,000 gallons a month, Guz said.

SAWS is proposing heavy water users be charged extra during drought restrictions before the utility restricts every customer watering only twice-a-month. (SAWS)


Once SAWS institutes watering restrictions, landscape irrigation is confined to only the morning and evening.

Under Stage 1, the watering periods are before 11 a.m. and after 7 p.m. Once Stage 2 is in place, the hours are restricted further to between 7-11 a.m. and 7-11 p.m.

However, Guz said people have asked about watering even earlier in the day, and the utility wants to save power during the evening peak hours for energy use.

So, it’s recommending switching the watering periods to before 10 a.m. and after 9 p.m. during Stage 1 restrictions and 5-10 a.m. and 9 p.m.-12 a.m. during Stage 2.


Guz said the “toughest” conversation so far has been over new rules for drip irrigation, which has recently “exploded” in popularity.

Unlike sprinkler systems or even soaker hoses, SAWS has very few regulations on the use of drip irrigation. Depending on the watering restriction stage, it can be used six to seven times more often than other types of landscape watering.

While Guz said drip irrigation is more efficient than spray irrigation because it has less evaporation, it generally applies water “as fast as spray irrigation.”

“That word, ‘drip,’ that just makes it sound like it doesn’t put out any water. That’s the part that’s not true. It can have an efficiency benefit. It just doesn’t need to run longer or more often,” Guz said.

Guz recommended SAWS apply the same restrictions it has for spray irrigation, though SAWS trustees will likely discuss further tweaking at their next meeting.


SAWS also plans to begin inspecting new irrigation systems to ensure they meet standards.

Poorly designed and installed irrigation systems can waste 20% of the water, according to the utility. Guz said the utility would inspect the plans as well as the final system.

It could require SAWS to do about 10,000 inspections each year, though Guz said they do not plan to begin phasing in the inspections until January.

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