When City Manager Erik Walsh thinks about the winter storm of last week, he also thinks about the future storms San Antonio will weather.
“How many times have we had the 100-year flood and two years later, we have the 500-year flood?” Walsh asked.
Though the storm hit San Antonio hard, Walsh told the San Antonio Report the City was not unprepared. San Antonio police and the Texas Department of Transportation decided to close highways ahead of the arrival of snow and ice, and residents were notified by Sunday of those closures. But he acknowledged that there needed to be more planning for the effects of widespread electricity and water outages.
“My thought is that if we have a snowstorm seven days from now, what are we going to do differently? Part of that is making sure you plan, you communicate, then you execute whatever the adjustments are that are necessary or whatever the plan is,” he said.
“We’re going to have to be better coordinated with the utilities in being able to forecast as much as they can.”
On Feb. 15, San Antonio residents found themselves in a city covered in snow. Many also were hit immediately with power outages as CPS Energy struggled to balance the demand for power with the rest of the state grid. Power outages led to water outages, and the City of San Antonio opened a warming center the next day at the Henry B. González Convention Center to help residents without access to electricity or heat.
By Feb. 18, CPS restored energy to nearly all of its customers. Though the San Antonio Water System said it has restored water to all of its customers and lifted the boil water notice on Tuesday, many Bexar County residents still don’t have access to water due to broken pipes or other infrastructure issues. Local water distribution efforts will be in effect through early March to fill that need.
As experts have long warned, the extreme weather event hit people lower on the socioeconomic ladder harder. Families were forced to seek shelter and warmth at hotels and motels, even if it meant overdrawing their bank accounts. Elderly residents in subsidized housing running low on supplies were given candy and snack food during the freeze. And the San Antonio Food Bank mobilized to give out 100,000 tons of food and water at mass distribution events over the weekend.
All of this was expected, said Doug Melnick, chief sustainability officer for the City of San Antonio. On Thursday, he briefed members of the City Council’s Community Health and Equity Committee on the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan that was adopted in 2019. That plan came out of San Antonio’s move to support the Paris Climate Agreement in 2017 after then-President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the international and nonbinding pledge to combat global climate change.
“The Paris Climate Agreement says not only do we need to reduce our emissions to help avert the worst climate impacts, [but] it really talks about adapting our communities – particularly our most vulnerable residents – to these changes,” Melnick said. “And that’s what we saw last week.”
During the winter storm, Melnick said he was considering ways the City could reduce energy demand year-round. One of those strategies is requiring commercial property owners to track energy use, which has been shown to lower energy consumption. Constructing energy-efficient buildings also helps save power.
“We all got a crash course in energy last week,” he said. “We all learned what ‘shedding load’ means. That was new to me. And so I looked at strategies that could help reduce what we’re consuming locally.”
The City also needs to look at retrofitting homes and buildings to withstand extreme weather and understand that not doing so could result in disaster, Melnick said.
“We want to assess the cost of events like this because we want to be able to say, ‘Look, if we don’t take action … everything’s going to have a cost associated with it,'” Melnick said. “We need to understand what the costs of not taking action are going to be.”
City staff is working on drafting a municipal energy policy that mandates documenting building energy use, Melnick said. In the wake of last week’s storm, staff added a new section: an emergency response guide on how to decrease City electricity use in cases of high energy demand.
And the utilities and the City must be prepared for future extreme weather events, Walsh said. That includes ensuring critical services will stay online ahead of freezes and heat waves, both of which will continue to affect San Antonio.
“I think that’s a new dynamic that we’re gonna have to deal with, and I’m certain that it’s going to happen again,” Walsh said. “I don’t think it’ll take long for it to happen. The changes in weather are visible … and not just cold weather. I think hot weather is probably more likely in this part of the country. And we could be in the exact same position where people don’t have access to air conditioning and are stuck in their homes.”
Local leaders have already taken their turns interrogating SAWS and CPS Energy officials about service failures and what went wrong. On Thursday, state legislators grilled ERCOT officials about the power outages across Texas during the winter storms. Walsh said though the larger discussion around last week’s disaster needs to happen at a statewide level, San Antonio’s utility companies and the City itself should be part of it as well, especially in terms of energy prices that spiked during the emergency.
“There needs to be a conversation about the price of fuel and how fast that increased in a supply-demand market,” Walsh said. “… What protections should be in place for the cost of commodities, especially when that commodity is utilized to either warm or cool citizens? Should there be something there to help control that?”
CPS Energy is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.