By Robert Rivard

San Antonio could run out of water some day, perhaps by 2015, if we don’t change course.

That sensational assertion isn’t my prediction. It comes straight out of a presentation by executives with the San Antonio Water System (SAWS), one that’s been made to various civic and business leaders this year. The SAWS 2009 Water Management Plan Update is what ratepayers will find on the water utility’s website, but it’s no longer an operative document. It’s not what people in the leadership community are being shown..

Two other documents offer more accurate snapshots of how SAWS officials see supply and demand in the wake of the recent historic drought. The 2012 Water Management Plan was presented to the Greater Chamber of Commerce’s Water Committee on April 25. It includes more accurate census data on the fast-growing metropolitan population and updated GPCD numbers, which stands for “gallons per capita per day,” or how much water each household uses.

2012 Water Management Plan WMP
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The SA2020 goal for San Antonio water’s usage pegs current consumption at 124 GPCD, which was true in 2009 before the drought, and calls for a reduction to 116 GPCD over an eight-year time period. That seemed quite doable when I first wrote about the topic in March and proposed that Stage One water restrictions become the norm, three days after SAWS lifted restrictions, allowing residents to resume all-day landscape irrigation, let a water hose pour water into a street while washing a car, and other unrestricted water usage.

Here’s the fallacy of current policy: Droughts occur with cyclical regularity in South Texas, but conservation measures are imposed only after a drought begins. Why don’t we conserve year-around? Here is a commonly heard SAWS mantra: “Conservation is the cheapest source of water,” but the numbers indicate we don’t practice what we preach.

Last year the average household used 149 GPCD, according to the 2012 Water Management Plan. Without  the mandatory Stage One and Two restrictions that were put in place, the report states, usage would have spiked to 169 GPCD. Clearly, we are using more water than previously disclosed. San Antonio might be using the same amount of water it once did when the population was much smaller, as SAWS officials also routinely state, but conservation gains appear to be mostly a legacy from the 1990s. Since 2002, water consumption has risen each year, and more recently, water lost to spills and leaks has spiked from less than 10% to more than 15%. These numbers suggest we are not a leading-edge city for water conservation, after all.

A second SAWS document, titled, “GPCD: The Value of Demand Management,” was presented March 20 to another group at the Westin La Cantera, I’m told. Both documents are Power Point presentations rife with confusing acronyms, but readers can wade in and read for themselves. Any discussion of water is, by its very nature, technical, and different people can reach different conclusions honestly. Much of the debate about future supply and demand is based on hypothetical models. Change the assumptions and the outcomes change. To be fair, The Rivard Report will invite SAWS officials to write and publish their own article on our site, as long as it is data-driven and gives ratepayers the latest available information, including  SAWS’ current assumptions regarding future supply, demand and cost.

GPCD: The Value of Demand Management
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However one interprets the data, no one I know in local or regional water management believes San Antonio can meet its future water needs with current water holding. Two other voices in the water debate, District 8 Councilman Reed Williams and Weir Labatt,  who serves on both the Texas Water Development Board and as chairman of the 17-state Western States Water Council, want SAWS to adopt more aggressive water acquisition policies.

“You cannot conserve your way to a solution,” Williams told me last week.

Williams believes SAWS must grow its water supply through purchases from outside purveyors, which cannot be done without raising rates, a step Williams believes is essential, with some accommodation made to soften the blow for low-income users. One way to do that is to keep a low rate for each household’s first 10,000 gallons of monthly consumption, with each tier being billed at an escalating rate.

Any “new water” we acquire, Williams and Labatt acknowledge, will cost more than water pumped from the Edwards Aquifer.  Both believe the current low rates are no longer realistic and that SAWS and City Council need to educate and prepare the public for what inevitably is coming.

Williams believes customers who use more water will willingly pay more for that water. Rather than limit their use, Williams argues, SAWS should meet that demand with an elevated price structure that, in effect, allows the water utility to bank more cash reserves. Those funds can then be applied to purchasing more water without elevating base rates steeply.

Labatt has been advocating for more rapid brackish water processing for some years and even thinks Texas should explore the far-more expensive process of salt water desalination along the Gulf Coast.

A number of people I’ve spoken with are critical of how SAWS has handled its 2011 RFP seeking outside water sources. There were a dozen or more submissions by different entities, a measure of how quickly a private water market is developing in the state. Most came from partnerships looking to acquire cheap water via groundwater pumping rights, mostly in thinly populated rural areas, and resell it at a markup to thirsty urban utilities. If SAWS doesn’t corner those regional sources, critics say, other municipalities will and SAWS will have little recourse when it starts to run short of water in a few years.

I filed an Open Records request with SAWS in March asking to review the submissions, a request that was rejected. In fact, the next day SAWS released its list of four finalists selected from the larger group. Coincidence? SAWS won’t release the four finalist proposals, either.

Some observers say SAWS CEO Robert Puente Jr. only wants to proceed with one of the four projects under review, even as others advocate a more aggressive — and expensive — approach that would have SAWS contracting with three or more water purveyors on a trial and error basis.

The refusal of SAWS to share the proposals with the public is eerily similar to actions by the prior leadership at CPS Energy when pressed for the real costs of expanding the South Texas Plant nuclear facility. Ultimately, those officials were ousted for misleading the public and City Council on the true cost of expansion. Williams told me last week that City Council has not been given access to the proposals, either. How can San Antonio evaluate alternative water supply sources if only select SAWS officials are privy to the data?

While ratepayers await release of more information about possible water purchases from private purveyors, it seems equally worthwhile to take a second look at conservation. Creation of a sustainable, new energy economy is a SA2020 goal and a widely shared ambition in San Antonio, yet we have not had the public debates that occurred years ago in some of the desert cities, including Las Vegas, Phoenix and Tuscon, where a combination of incentives to homeowners and ordinances controlling new landscaping have worked to reduce St. Augustine grass and landscape irrigation.

San Antonio pretends to address the issue with Stage One and Two restrictions. We are in denial, just as agricultural interests that pump unlimited ground water into the mid-day sun are in denial. Sooner or later, water shortages will force legislative action and an end to urban and rural excessive use of water.

Some business leaders says lush lawns are essential to attracting outside economic development. I have never seen any data to support that claim. AT&T came and went for reasons unrelated to the city’s landscaping, and Toyota built a vehicle assembly plant here for its own reasons. I know of no companies that have threatened to leave because of water restrictions during drought cycles. On the contrary, the economies of the desert cities I cited have developed nicely over the decades that landscaping regulations have been in effect there.

What ratepayers are not being told, a message they need to hear, is that the era of cheap water supply is ending, the victim of growth and because we need more money to protect our aquifer, to treat brackish water and to purchase water from third-party sources. The cost of every natural resource is going up, including water. Low income users can be afforded some protection, but the price needs to go up, especially for heavy users. If we can’t eliminate or greatly reduce St. Augustine grass, at least we can make it more expensive for those who can’t live without it.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.