A section of the Vista Ridge pipeline disappears underground as, in the background, construction crews finish building a water tank at Agua Vista Station. The station is the endpoint of the Vista Ridge pipeline.
A section of the Vista Ridge pipeline disappears underground as, in the background, construction crews finish building a water tank which will store the incoming Burleson County water. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

A utility owned by the Canadian city of Edmonton has been chosen to operate the San Antonio Water System’s Vista Ridge pipeline, creating a business relationship that will last at least 30 years.

SAWS’ board of trustees on Tuesday passed a resolution consenting to EPCOR Services, a division of EPCOR Utilities, as the operating service provider for Vista Ridge.

Stretching from Burleson County to San Antonio, the 142-mile water pipeline that can deliver up to 16.3 billion gallons per year will become SAWS’ most significant water source outside the Edwards Aquifer once water starts flowing in 2020.

The selection of EPCOR answers one of the most important questions remaining about Vista Ridge: who would actually run the pipeline once construction is complete?

Under the terms of the Vista Ridge contract signed in 2014, the consortium of private companies building the line could pick the operating service provider; SAWS could choose whether or not to consent. Kansas City firm Garney Construction has a controlling stake in Vista Ridge after taking most of the project over from Spanish conglomerate Abengoa in 2016.

The agreement between the Garney-led project company and EPCOR has an initial term of 30 years, with an option to extend another 20 years, SAWS Vice President of Water Resources and Governmental Relations Donovan Burton told the board.

In a prepared statement, Garney President Scott A. Parrish said they spent a year reviewing and vetting “multiple word-class operators” before settling on EPCOR.

“We selected EPCOR as the operator of the Vista Ridge pipeline because of the company’s financial wherewithal, technical competency on similar projects and a culture that very much aligns with the project company and SAWS,” Parrish said.

EPCOR bears some similarities to SAWS in that its sole shareholder is the City of Edmonton. Though based in Canada, it operates water pipelines in Arizona and New Mexico and recently began operating a project in Texas closely tied to Vista Ridge.

The EPCOR tower in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
The EPCOR tower in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Credit: WinterE229 WinterforceMedia / Wikimedia Commons

In 2016, EPCOR officials announced they had acquired the 130 Pipeline Project. The 53-mile pipeline delivers water to eastern Travis County from the same aquifers to be pumped by Vista Ridge.

“This acquisition is a natural extension of our U.S. business platform and builds off of our expertise in developing and providing water solutions in some of North America’s most challenging arid environments,” EPCOR USA president Joe Gysel said in a prepared statement at the time.

On Wednesday, EPCOR director of public and government affairs Rebecca Stenholm said the company “has a 125-year history of providing safe, reliable and high-quality service and we’re committed to growing our business in the [U.S.]”

“Vista Ridge is a natural extension of our existing Texas footprint, and we’re looking forward to operating the pipeline and working with the San Antonio Water System to do our part to serve the San Antonio community,” Stenholm said.

Gene Dawson, president of Pape-Dawson Engineers, has been closely involved with Vista Ridge from the beginning, especially in acquiring the necessary rights-of-way to build the pipeline across hundreds of private properties.

“They’re committed to this region,” Dawson said of EPCOR. “They already have a project similar to this one, and they operate very similar to the San Antonio Water System, so we felt like they were the best operator for the project.”

Dawson said the pipeline is “about 60 percent” complete, with multiple construction crews working along the route. All of the rights-of-way have been acquired along the route, he said.

“We’re kind of at the boring part of the project where we’re just putting pipe in the ground,” Dawson said.

At the meeting, Burton said that Garney executives kept SAWS officials informed as they made their selection.

“They kept SAWS in this process the whole way,” Burton said. “The worst thing that could happen is they go out and select somebody and bring it to us and we weren’t involved in the process.”

Burton said that EPCOR must follow specifics outlined in the Vista Ridge contract, including maintaining adequate water quality, operating efficiently, ensuring regular maintenance, and being available to SAWS 24-7. EPCOR’s “preliminary staffing” on the project will include 15 to 17 people, Burton said.

A five-member budget panel will oversee the pipeline’s operations, Burton said. SAWS and Garney will each appoint one member, with panel members selecting the remaining three. All must be “senior industry experts,” and none can be a past or present employee of SAWS or Garney, he said.

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Brendan Gibbons

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