At a West San Antonio Chamber of Commerce luncheon Friday, leaders of San Antonio’s three key water agencies shared success stories and talked about the water issues still facing the region. 

Edwards Aquifer Authority General Manager Roland Ruiz, San Antonio River Authority General Manager Suzanne Scott, and San Antonio Water System President and CEO Robert Puente spoke at the panel moderated by chamber President Kristi Villanueva. 

“I hope you keep an open mind and an open heart because this is very important to the future of our city,” Villanueva told attendees as the panel began.  

The panelists discussed how across the San Antonio area, water touches multiple agencies as it moves throughout the water cycle. Rain becomes river or creek water, which then can recharge the Edwards Aquifer, the vast limestone rock layer that serves as the main water source for the region. 

That water becomes drinking water or irrigation water for farmers when pumped out of a well. It might become part of a spring’s flow that keeps rivers running and brings tourists to places like New Braunfels and San Marcos. Ultimately, even drinking water returns to the rivers again in the form of treated wastewater from sewage treatment plants. 

“Tackling the issues, whatever they may be, around water cannot be done in a vacuum because the natural system doesn’t operate in a vacuum,” Ruiz said. “It’s all interconnected, and so the people around us are all interconnected.”

Moderating the panel with Villanueva was John Bailey, a climate advisor with environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council, working on contract for the City as part of its climate planning efforts. The position is paid for with the funding San Antonio received from Bloomberg Philanthropies as part of its American Cities Climate Challenge. 

“There’s a perception in the country that San Antonio – Texas is in general – is very pro-growth, which is true, and maybe a little more skeptical of regulation than other places,” Bailey said. “And yet, it seems to me that water really spans the spectrum. There’s been this bipartisan consensus.”

That’s largely true in a city that has generally embraced water conservation and lowered its per-person water use from as high as 225 gallons per person per day in 1982 to less than 120 gallons per person per day now, according to SAWS’ 2017 water management plan. The utility is planning for use to drop to 88 gallons per person per day by 2070. 

At the panel, Puente talked about how without such conservation, SAWS would have needed an additional large-scale water project beyond the supplies it has now and that four sewage treatment plants would have been necessary to treat the city’s wastewater instead of SAWS’ three. Avoiding construction of both has reduced SAWS’ capital and operation costs, he said. 

“It’s a business model to conserve,” Puente said.  “It’s not just a feel-good, do-the-right thing. It pays for itself. … I can prove over and over again how important water conservation is, irrespective of any kind of sustainability or environmental pressures.”  

However, other water issues have not yet broken into the public consciousness the way that conservation has. A major example is water quality. San Antonio’s rivers and creeks remain too polluted by bacteria to be considered safe for swimming, an issue tied to the proliferation of asphalt and concrete across the San Antonio River watershed. 

That’s changing, especially as the San Antonio River Authority works to help people recognize “the connection between the land and the water,” Scott said at the panel.

“We see water quality in the river as really a barometer of how well we’re managing our land,” Scott continued. “If we’re doing a really good job managing our stormwater runoff and the other things that are happening on our land, making sure that we have enough trees and ground cover and vegetation, then ultimately, that will help what runs off the land and into the water.” 

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.