In its original form, sustainability was closely associated with the maintenance of environmental quality. The roots of a sustainability paradigm grew from a concern of the ability of the earth to sustain a growing human population, known as carrying capacity. The same can be said for our region. As the Austin area experiences an unprecedented population boom, the demand on natural resources that sustain life is significant and sustainability is intricately linked to the environmental quality of the region as a whole. Environmental sustainability is interdependent with quality of life and connected to outcomes in many of the other indicator areas. Questions of economy, mobility, or any other sustainability dimension are unnecessary if not situated in the context of a healthy and thriving natural environment. Some key indicators for this section include: water consumption and water quality; energy use; air quality; solid waste disposal and recycling; hazardous waste; and regional air quality and climate change. Some highlights from this section include:
- All counties have seen a decline in ground water levels since 1990. This is most concerning to Bastrop County, which primarily sources its municipal water from underground alluvial wells. In 2015, Bastrop County saw its ground water levels hit a level as low as 204ft. below land surface, the same level measured for the drought year of 2010.
- Thanks to greater rainfall in 2015 and 2016, the highland lakes supported by the Colorado River and tributary watersheds, are at or near 100% capacity. This is the primary source of water in the Austin area, except for Bastrop County.
- According to the A2SI Community Survey, the percentage of Austin area residents who “definitely know” where their water comes from has remained unchanged, in between 40% and 41%.
- Austin Energy has increased its capacity of providing renewable energy over the years from 0.6 million Mega-Watt Hours in 2006 to 3.3 million Mega-Watt Hours in 2015, an increase of about 450%.
- In 2015, survey respondents were asked about their opinion of the causes of climate change. The most widely cited response was that “climate change is partly caused by natural processes and partly caused by human activity” (52%). Twenty-nine percent attributed climate change to “human processes” and 14% attributed it to natural processes. Only 5% of respondents reported “there is no such thing as climate change”.
When asked “who is most responsible for addressing climate change” Austin area residents are putting increasing responsibility on Businesses (27%, up from 19% in 2008) and state government (7%, up from 4% in 2008). The Federal Government consistently ranks as the “most responsible” for addressing climate change, with 38% of the respondents reporting that in 2015.
Thinking about the environment section, some questions to consider:
- Do you understand where the Austin area water comes from? Do you know where it goes?
- How do we continue to ensure that we’ll have water to meet the needs of our growing region?
- As a region, what do we need to be doing about climate change?