“Resilient cities are prepared for extreme weather events; resilience reduces impacts to the community and requires less recovery time from shocks and stressors”. Austin’s Climate Resilience Action Plan for City Assets and Operations, (page 12)
As part of our effort to raise awareness of the need to improve our home resilience and to educate homeowners in the U.S on solutions to climate risks, we gather information on resilient actions, strategies, and challenges from key cities in the U.S.
In this blog, we focus on the City of Austin, Texas, and its climate resilience. Austin has been one of the fastest-growing large cities in the U.S since 2010. It is located in Central Texas on the Colorado River, at the intersection of four major ecological regions. Its unique topography contributes to its humid subtropical climate with characteristics of the desert, the tropics, and a wetter climate.
I spoke with Marc Coudert, Environmental Conservation Program Manager in the City of Austin who helped lay out the city’s numerous bold and proactive actions toward climate adaptation and mitigation.
Austin’s climate change risks projections are stated in a report issued by the office of sustainability. The main climate concerns mentioned in the report are extreme precipitation, extreme heat, and drought.
Austin’s Climate Resilience Action Plan for City Assets and Operations further emphasizes the following key climate hazards as the most critical for short- and long-term planning efforts:
- Extreme Heat: Austin experiences an increase in high-temperature extremes that are becoming more common. High temperatures frequently exceed 90°F in the summer, some days reaching over 100°F.
- Drought: Austin’s hot climate, combined with a lack of rainfall, has resulted in many periods of drought. Drinking water comes from the Colorado River by way of the Highland Lakes. During the recent drought, the inflow that helps refill the Highland Lakes was the lowest since the lakes were built. Precipitation patterns are expected to become more variable, leading to longer periods of drought.
- Wildfire: Drought induces favorable conditions for wildfires. The wildfire risk varies throughout the city and residents can explore their specific wildfire risk on the interactive city map. More than 60 percent of current structures in Austin are within 1.5 miles of the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI), with more joining that percentage every day.
- Flood: In 2007 Austin experienced a significant flood event triggered by heavy precipitation and intensified due to a prolonged preceding drought. The Central Texas Hill Country is among the most flood-prone areas in the U.S due to rocky soils, steep terrain, and intense rainfall events. Strong storms can quickly trigger flooding in Austin, especially along the city’s many urban creeks, streams, and rivers.
The City of Austin follows the 2015 International Building Code and local Building Technical Codes containing regulations for Building, Electric, Fire, Property Maintenance, Mechanical, Plumbing, Residential, and Solar Energy.
Here are significant local regulations regarding climate resilience:
- Austin Energy, the city’s power provider, set the Energy Conservation Audit and Disclosure (ECAD) ordinance. This code requires that all properties served by Austin Energy and located within the city limits, go through energy audits and reporting. This regulation allows ECAD to promote energy efficiency by identifying potential energy savings.
- In April of 2020 Austin adopted the new 2015 International Wildland-Urban Interface Code (WUIC).
- A different section of the City Code requires new commercial developments or redevelopments within 250 feet of a reclaimed water main to connect for irrigation, cooling, and other non-potable water uses. Reclaimed water is treated wastewater for reuse. The city provides a system map to help locate existing and proposed mains.
- In 2020, the city adopted the Onsite Water Reuse Systems Ordinance, which regulates the collection, treatment, and use of alternative water sources for non-potable uses in multi-family and commercial buildings, such as rainwater, stormwater, and gray water.
- In 2019 Austin updated its floodplain regulations in response to a historical rainfall study for Texas by the National Weather Service. The rules for constructing, remodeling, and developing property in the floodplain, are now based on the current FEMA 500-year floodplain, instead of the 100-year floodplain. The goal is to protect residents from building in floodplain locations.
The mentioned rules and regulations were adopted in the last couple of years, yet Coudert trusts that the city will continue its adoption of building codes on an ongoing basis.
The City’s Climate-Resilient Actions
When it comes to resilience, Austin, like other cities, focuses on strengthening and protecting low-income residents that lack sufficient resources to protect themselves.
Yet, the city’s climate efforts are cross-sectoral aiming to protect all residents. The office of sustainability created an overview of existing efforts and potential opportunities to increase climate resilience. 2021-22 budget includes funds for recruiting a chief resilience officer as recommended by the city’s Response to Climate Resilience Resolution. The city’s website includes a page summary of many actions taken to analyze climate risks, vulnerabilities, strategies, and solutions that can help protect the city and its residents.
Austin is engaged in numerous actions to tackle the climate risks it is facing. If I were a resident of Autin, I would be reassured that the city is doing what is needed to protect me.
Here are several examples of Austin’s resilient initiatives:
In Cases of Emergency
- Austin plans to develop resilience hubs that will function as emergency shelters for the neighboring community during times of disaster or extreme weather. The hubs are community facilities that can produce power by a combination of solar energy and battery storage and collect water by rainwater capture and on-site filtration.
- Austin Energy established an emergency response and incident command framework that is activated when weather events threaten to harm assets and operations.
- During major flooding events, residents can rely on ATX Flood to identify potentially dangerous low-river crossings and road closures. Residents can observe conditions almost in real-time thanks to installed cameras in specific crossings.
Water Resource Protection from Extreme Drought
- In 2016 the city adopted a Drought Contingency Plan to conserve the available water supply. The plan goes into effect during drought or other emergency water supply conditions and focuses on domestic water use, sanitation, and fire protection. It includes water conservation regulations for extreme droughts and a specified strategy to raise residents’ awareness and cooperation.
- Austin Water works to protect and enhance the main city’s water supplies, the Colorado River, and the Highland Lakes system through various partnerships and processes.
- The Water Forward program fights the drought by expanding several existing Austin Water rebate programs (see below). The plan initiates developing an ordinance to require water-efficient landscapes for new single-family homes and water budgets that would initially encourage and eventually require customers to meet water usage targets.
- The city is in the first phase of implementation of an Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) project. In this strategy, water is stored in an underground aquifer during periods of rainfall and recovered for use during dry periods such as drought. Storing water underground avoids water loss through evaporation.
- Water Forward implements Advanced Metering Infrastructure technology to alert customers to potential leaks almost in real-time. Residents can sign up for My ATX Water. This strategy reduces water losses from pipes in the utility’s water distribution system while helping residents manage their water consumption.
- Austin is in the process of expanding its purple pipe infrastructure which delivers reclaimed water to some parts of Austin. Reclaimed water is treated wastewater that can be used for non-potable purposes such as irrigation and cooling towers. Residents who use reclaimed water can see a reduction in water fees.
- The city of Austin in collaboration with Travis County formed a Wildfire Protection Plan in 2014. The plan develops a regional strategy, aligned with national best practices, to increase wildfire preparedness by restoring and maintaining landscapes, creating and supporting Fire Adapted Communities, and implementing a risk-based management response to wildfires.
- Austin Fire Department's Wildfire Division created the Austin Area Wildfire Hub. This informational portal educates residents on current fire weather conditions, wildfire risks, and opportunities to increase communities’ resilience to wildfires. The Wildfire Division also works with land management department partners to minimize the wildfire risk within Austin by promoting resilient landscapes. The techniques used are prescribed fires and mechanical fuels mitigation to reduce the risk of wildfire while restoring native habitats.
- Austin has adopted a model of voluntary home buyouts in the city’s floodplains as a part of its “flood risk reduction projects.” The city helps residents move from floodplains to safe locations by providing the cost of the original home, the cost difference between the original and the new comparable home, as well as moving costs. Since the 1980s, the city has implemented ten buyout projects, with each project encompassing anywhere from a handful to more than 800 properties. Examples of such buyouts are Onion Creek and Williamson Creek.
- The Local Flood Program evaluates and upgrades the city’s drainage systems to address flooding, while the Watershed Protection Strategic Plan helps the city prepare for future challenges by identifying and addressing existing flooding, erosion, and water quality problems.
- In addition to the Watershed Protection Department’s (WPD) Green Infrastructure Management to protect water quality and mitigate flooding and erosion hazards, Austin promotes a broader perspective of Green Infrastructure to enhance residents’ connection with nature.
Handling Extreme Temperatures
- In 2014 Austin adopted an Urban Forest Plan to maintain, foster, and increase the trees and vegetation in the public land around the city. Urban forests hold numerous benefits, but in terms of climate adaptation and mitigation, it increases shading and promotes carbon sequestration, while reducing the heat island effect, and the energy used for cooling.
- Austin worked with NASA DEVELOP to examine the distribution of urban heat throughout the city. The project identified which communities are most vulnerable to heat hazards associated with the urban heat island (UHI) effect.
- Austin Energy promotes green buildings which reduce buildings’ impact on the environment. Green buildings usually employ energy efficiency strategies that increase their ability to withstand extreme heat and cold waves. Austin Energy Green Building (AEGB) provides a consultative rating system and assists residents in achieving it.
- The Sustainable and Holistic Integration of Energy Storage and Solar Photovoltaics (SHINES) project integrates solar power, energy storage, smart inverters, forecasting tools, market signals, advanced communications, and a software optimization platform. This integration allows Austin Energy to optimize the energy production and delivery for residential and commercial properties and contributes to Austin’s goal to achieve 100% carbon-free energy generation by 2035.
Promoted Residential Resilient Strategies
The city promotes many strategies for homeowners to use for protection against extreme weather events:
Through the Heat Island Mitigation Program, the city promotes strategies to reduce the heat island effect, reduce indoor temperatures, and energy costs:
- Cool roofs: specific roof coatings or other light-colored or reflective roofing material help reflect the heat instead of absorbing it. The city also considers rooftop solar panels (PV) and green roofs as cool roofs.
- Green walls or “living walls” are self-sufficient vertical gardens attached to buildings’ exterior or interior walls. This strategy is helpful, especially on sites with limited space for large shade trees or traditional gardens. Green walls also help increase insulation.
Note that this strategy should not be implemented in locations of Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) as it contradicts the recommended defensible space that protects homes from wildfires.
- Cool pavements are light in color and may have special reflective components and properties. Materials and construction techniques are selected to reduce the absorption, retention, and emitting of solar heat. They can be made of porous material, which traps less heat and allows water to seep into the ground below. Residential properties can use cool pavements in areas such as driveways, sidewalks, parking areas, patios, and paths.
- The city encourages planting shade trees and provides specific tips on preferred locations of the trees relative to the property and preferred tree species.
- Adding Shade structures adjacent to homes, especially for shading windows and glass doors, and east or west-facing walls can reduce the solar heat reflected into the yard and home.
The Grow Green program promotes designing and constructing landscapes that contribute to the environment while helping residents and the city manage stormwater runoff. Examples are rain gardens, a design that helps divert stormwater to a desired planted location in your garden, and other drainage solutions.
Austin Water promotes Residential Irrigation System Evaluations and provides instructions and a template to help residents set an efficient watering schedule and identify the need for irrigation system repairs and upgrades.
Yet another strategy promoted by Austin Water is Gray Water Systems. Residents can find information on the benefits, types, regulations, and the process of installing gray water systems. Gray water is wastewater from bathroom sinks, showers, bathtubs, and laundry. A gray water system allows reusing that water in the property’s landscape or foundation. It also helps lower the water bills since the same amount of water is used twice before it flows to the public sewer system.
Austin Energy allows residents to participate in a Community Solar program to access locally generated solar energy, without actually installing solar panels on the property.
Coudert was right to call it a laundry list. The incentives and rebates across several organizations within the city promote various climate adaptation strategies:
Austin Water provides an extensive list of rebates and incentives to promote water conservation:
- The city offers free tools for conserving water indoors and out: a Water-Efficient Showerhead; a kitchen & bathroom Faucet Aerator that mixes air with water to reduce the amount of water used without reducing water pressure; a Soil Moisture Meter; and a water Saver Hose Meter.
- Residents may apply for a Free Irrigation System Evaluation by a licensed irrigator from Austin Water.
- Cartridge Pool Filter Rebate: A rebate of up to $250 of the cost of installing a high-efficiency cartridge pool filter that can help save 2,000-8,000 gallons of water annually.
- Irrigation Upgrade Rebate: Up to $1000 of the total costs of installation of components that improve the existing residential irrigation system’s water efficiency. Components such as Pressure Regulating Valve (PRV); Watering Timer; converting watering station from spray to multi-stream; multi-trajectory rotor nozzles; converting a station to drip, and capping a station.
- WaterWise Rainscape Rebate: Up to $500 to install landscape features such as berms, terraces, swales, rain gardens, and porous pavement to keep rainwater on the property.
- Landscape Survival Tools Rebate to help purchase mulch, compost, and core aeration. These can help keep the yard healthy while saving water.
- Laundry-to-Landscape Rebate: Up to $150 to purchase equipment to reuse laundry gray water to water the landscape.
- Pool Cover Rebate: Up to $50 for a manual pool cover and up to $200 for a permanent mechanical pool cover. A pool cover can reduce evaporation and help conserve water.
Apart from the city’s website, which hosts all of the information brought in this blog, there are additional forms of communication through which homeowners in Austin can get educated regarding exposure to the mentioned climate risks:
- Austin runs a Flood Early Warning System which continuously monitors rainfall, water levels, and low water crossings in the city. This system facilitates a timely response and management at a time of a flood. On its website, the city provides information on flood risks per location, how to prepare for a flood and what to do in case of actual flooding.
- The Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and the Travis County Office of Emergency Management have partnered to deploy an emergency preparedness mobile app. This app, among other services, provides preparedness resources and emergency plan checklists. The Capital Area Council of Governments uses a regional notification system (RNS) called Everbridge as a crucial public-safety tool.
- Residents can find their exposure to wildfire risk by clicking on a desired location on the interactive map.
Austin faces multiple climate risks due to its location and topography, and perhaps one leads to another. Extreme heat is a risk on its own, but it also leads to drought conditions, threatening the city’s water resources. Drought conditions, in turn, tend to intensify incidents of floods triggered by extreme precipitation.
Austin sets the right tone for climate resilience boldness by taking brave steps toward protecting residents from climate extremes. We support this approach for cities in the reality of mounting weather unpredictability. Cities’ climate actions should be as proactive and aggressive as Austin’s in the face of the current and approaching climate challenges.
Austin tackles each climate risk from multiple angles, analyzing vulnerabilities and opportunities, studying other cities’ solutions, and researching available technologies. Leaders in the City of Austin realize that letting the public voluntarily adapt to climate change will take too long. Instead, the city positively uses its charter to set local regulations and provide numerous incentives to speed up the adoption of desired strategies.
Residents and homeowners in Austin that want to improve climate resilience in their homes have significant support from the city. They can:
- Explore and be aware of the climate risks in their community and their city and its challenges.
- Plan and be prepared to take action during a climate-related event. Tap into the city emergency apps, and know where the nearest city shelter is, which will hopefully become a resilience hub soon. Know what steps to take in the event of a severe flood.
- Leverage the many offered incentives by the city to make their home truly sustainable - resilient to local risks, safe, and eco-friendly.
- Select licensed and accredited professionals from the city records, that can build/fix to code and get the best return on investment.