San Antonio Water System's projects a monthly rate by 2020, when the Vista Ridge pipeline project is scheduled to start delivery of water to the San Antonio area. Courtesy/SAWS

City Council is scheduled to take a decisive vote Thursday morning on new rates and rate structures for water and wastewater service for customers of the San Antonio Water System, a vote that follows two years of study, deliberation, and debate over the city’s long-term water security and Council’s unanimous vote in October 2014 to support the $3.4 billion Vista Ridge water project.

If approved, the new rate structure will add four new usage and pricing tiers to the existing four-tiered system. SAWS officials say the new structure rewards ratepayers who practice conservation and penalizes excessive water usage. Overall, SAWS is seeking a rate increase of 7.5% in 2016 and 7.9% in 2017. The increased revenue will fund three major water and wastewater projects:

  • SAWS has signed a consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to carry out $1.1. billion in repairs and improvements to its sewer lines and pumping stations over the next 10 years.
  • SAWS will open Phase I of its brackish water desalination project in South Bexar County in June 2016, which will generate about 12 million gallons of water per day (mgd) or 13,440 acre-feet per year from the Wilcox Aquifer.
  • Integration of the 50,000 acre-feet of water that will be delivered to SAWS via the 142-mile Vista Ridge pipeline from Burleson County.

Thursday’s vote will be preceded by presentations to City Council by Ben Gorzell, the City’s chief financial officer, and Robert Puente, president and CEO of SAWS. There also will be a Citizens to be Heard period that is expected to attract speakers for and against the proposed rate hikes and new structure. Puente described the proposed rate hikes as a “worst case scenario” during an October program sponsored by the San Antonio Clean Technology Forum. SAWS officials hope to offset the costs of the Vista Ridge project by selling some of the water to other regional municipalities or water utilities since San Antonio will not need that much water added to its supply in the early years of the 30-year contract.

There has been little public attention paid to SAWS’ 10-year obligation to meet the EPA mandate for wastewater line upgrades, or the cost of the desalination plant now under construction. Virtually all public debate has focused on the Vista Ridge project, which SAWS officials say accounts for only part of the proposed rate increases.

The Citizens Environmental Advisory Committee (CEAC), an 11-person body created by City Council in 2009 to advise officeholders on community viewpoints on important environmental issues, sent a Nov. 13 letter to Mayor Ivy Taylor and  City Council noting its concerns in advance of the Thursday vote. CEAC Chair Tenna Florian cited six principal concerns relating to Thursday’s vote in the letter:

* Will the SAWS 2015 Water Management Plan be made publicly available prior to the vote on November 19th? This vote is determining the trajectory of our water future, yet the only plan available from SAWS for review is the 2012 Water Management Plan which needs to be adjusted to reflect a reduced demand per capita, newly established supplies and updated population growth projections. It is crucial that all information be made available to ensure fully informed decisions are made about our water future.

* How will SAWS address our current high rate of water loss? According to pages 72 – 73 of the Water Policy Analysis for the Cities of San Antonio and Fair Oaks Ranch (released November 2015), lost/non-revenue water accounted for approximately 36,305 AF of water in 2013, which is approximately 75% of the yearly proposed Vista Ridge supply. We understand and appreciate that SAWS is currently studying the sources of the water loss. Adequate funds need to be directed to our aging water infrastructure to ensure clean and safe water is being delivered efficiently to our citizens. CEAC feels that good stewardship of our existing water resources must be the first step to ensure a stable and economically viable water future in San Antonio.

* To what degree is SAWS committed to continue to reduce per capita demand when, per page 68 of the Water Study, it appears the supply will far exceed the demand for quite some time? Where is the incentive to conserve when SAWS will be obligated to sell 50,000 AF of water starting in 2020, water that we may not need (according to the most conservative population growth numbers and drought of record conditions) until 2040 at the earliest?

* Is there a guarantee that drought restrictions will remain in place even if the metric by which the current restrictions are determined is forced to change due to reduced use of our current primary water supply, the Edwards Aquifer?

* How will the city encourage stormwater management as a means to increase water supply and reduce the need for other more costly water sources and rate increases in the future? CEAC has received encouraging presentations from Camp Bullis and SARA regarding the effectiveness of land management and Low Impact Development strategies for ground water recharge and flood management.

* Great efforts have been made to protect our current primary source of water, the Edwards Aquifer, which currently provides us with inexpensive, clean water that requires only minimal treatment. What source protection is in place for future water projects?

Florian’s letter did not call for a delay in the vote or take a position for or against the rate increases.

“The CEAC members have been discussing this issue with their individual council members regularly,” said Douglas Melnick, the City’s Chief Sustainability Officer and staff liaison to the Citizens Environmental Advisory Committee. “I think they wanted to formalize their concerns and get them placed in a letter.  They’ve been very involved, they’ve had quite a few presentations made to them by SAWS and others, and they identified the questions they think are important, but I don’t believe the intent was to hold up the vote.”

Districts 6 and 7 currently do not have representation on the committee.

The City Council meeting begins at 9 a.m. and the vote on SAWS water rates and rate structure is scheduled to be one of the first items for consideration.

*Top image: SAWS chart on water rate increases related to the Vista Ridge project.


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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.