Environment
2:41 pm
Thu August 23, 2012

During Drought, Austin Cleans Streets With Drinkable Water

When it is still dark outside you can hear the city’s sweeping and flushing trucks cleaning the downtown streets from gum, trash or even urine that lingers on the streets from the night before. Often you can hear water flushing on the streets and you wonder: Isn’t there a water restriction?

Recent rains might make you think otherwise, but the city of Austin is still in "moderate drought." That's why we are currently under Stage I watering restrictions. But When it comes to cleaning the streets of downtown Austin, the rules do not apply to the city itself, says Jill Mayfield, spokesperson from the Austin Water Utility Department.

“There is an exemption for water that’s used to protect health, safety or welfare for the public," Mayfield explained. "One example is street cleaning. We have so much pedestrian traffic and vehicle traffic, that it is important to keep our streets clean and healthy."

That means public cleaning trucks can technically use as much water as they want. Last week, for example, the city’s cleaning trucks used 24,000 gallons of water, according to the City’s Resource Recovery Department. That’s about half the size of a swimming pool.

“We do try to minimize the water that we use,” says Lauren Hammond, spokesperson for Austin Resource Recovery. The department manages most of the street cleaning in Austin, using a fleet of sweeping trucks.

“Our street sweepers use mist to control dust and if a street doesn’t seem to be very dusty then we won’t use as much mist,” says Hammond. But the department does have flusher trucks, that will flush alleys with water in the downtown entertainment district along Sixth Street and Congress Avenue four nights a week, says Hammond.

While the amount of water used might not be the biggest problem, the kind of water that is used for cleaning the streets could be controversial. City cleaners use fire hydrants to charge their trucks, meaning they use drinkable water to clean the streets. Austin used to use recycled water for street cleaning, but that was scaled back when some of those responsibilities were shifted from Austin Resource Recovery to Public Works. The City is now only using recycled water for cleaning sidewalks downtown.

"Amid one of the worst droughts in Texas history they should use reclaimed water for that,” criticizes Luke Metzger. He is the director of the advocacy group Environment Texas. “It’s a no-brainer that they stopped doing that.”