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Ten days ago, a rezoning application by California-based Niagara Bottling to build a water bottling plant at Brooks City Base was fast-tracked for City Council approval by the Zoning Commission, but the deal is now dead.
The company’s rezoning application has been withdrawn and Mayor Ivy Taylor and City Council have signaled their rejection of the deal. Brooks City Base no longer is pursuing the tenant, two sources close to Brooks told the Rivard Report.
Council had pulled the item from its June 4 agenda, and apparently reached a decision to pass on the deal in its Thursday executive session last week. Several Council members expressed satisfaction with the outcome when contacted Sunday.
“The applicant withdrew or postponed its request, so as of now, it couldn’t come back until August, but the Council understands the community concerns and shares those concerns,” Mayor Taylor said Sunday. “We don’t think this is anything we want to pursue. For all intents and purposes, the deal is off the books.”
The proposal was first surfaced by the City’s Economic Development Foundation, which brought the deal to Brooks, sources said. Councilmember Rebecca Viagran (D3) who requested the fast track consideration because Brooks City Base is in her district, was not available for comment.
The first phase of the Niagara Bottling plant would have brought 75-100 jobs in 2016, and 200 jobs by 2019, but most would have been low wage, hourly positions. Niagara would have required 2,500 acre-feet of water annually for its bottling and manufacturing operations, or about 830 million gallons of water. Other sources said the plant could have used just under 1% of SAWS’ annual pumping volume.
“These jobs did not meet the living wage threshold, for one thing,” said Councilmember Rey Saldaña(D4), “and it was also a question of optics, how something like that looked so soon after we approved the Vista Ridge water project. This was a zoning issue, not a water issue, but City Council heard the community and its taking the opportunity to make a statement in support of water conservation.”
The request by Niagara, based in water-parched Southern California, to establish a bottling facility in South Texas, where cyclical droughts, growing urban populations and high agricultural pumping all stress the current water supply, was strongly opposed by area environmental organizations.
Dr. Meredith McGuire, a Trinity University professor emeritus and co-chair of the Alamo Sierra Club Conservation Committee, addressed the Zoning Commission earlier this month.
“San Antonio is in a semi-arid region and must prepare for the highly probable occurrence of a 35-year-long mega-drought within this century,” McGuire said at the meeting. “The City cannot afford to allow such a huge drain of its water resources. Vista Ridge cannot solve the problem – and that water is not certain until San Antonio has vetted the project for financial closure. SAWS should not approve use of San Antonio water by any business that would make major demands for water, even during severe drought.”
McGuire also wrote an op-ed published on the Rivard Report: Commentary: Our Water Future is Not for Sale.
“The water bottling plant opportunity was not thoroughly vetted by Council, so I am thankful we put the brakes on it,” Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8) said Sunday. “On the surface, it’s inconsistent with the conversation we are having with citizens about conservation and doing everything we can to ensure long-term water security for the city.”
Several sources said Niagara has decided to pursue alternative locations either in the city of Schertz or Seguin, both of which draw their water supplies from the Carrizo Aquifer and are not customers of the San Antonio Water System.
SAWS did forge a significant agreement with those cities in 2011 to establish a pumping station in Schertz that moves water from Gonzales County into the SAWS system. The Regional Carrizo Water Supply Program now pumps 16,000 acre-feet of Carrizo Aquifer water to San Antonio from Gonzales County annually, the city’s largest supply of non-Edwards Aquifer water.
SAWS CEO and President Robert Puente acknowledged the Niagara Bottling project was controversial, but said the water utility is obligated by state law to serve all customers inside its service area.
“We serve whatever customers the City of San Antonio attracts, we don’t discriminate,” Puente said. “But, I guess it’s a relief.”
SAWS is currently seeking regional partners to share in the purchase of water in the 30-year, $3.4 billion Vista Ridge water project that will bring 50,000 acre-feet a year from Burleson County to San Antonio via a 142-mile pipeline. The new supply will increase the city’s water supply by 20%, but it will come at much steeper cost than ratepayers now pay for water. The project won City Council approval last October, and both City and SAWS officials said then that water conservation remains the foundation of water management in San Antonio.
Could Schertz or Seguin purchase Vista Ridge water from SAWS and then turn around and make it available to Niagara Bottling?
‘They could do that, but we would have the opportunity to say no,” Puente said.
“That’s not something the council has considered, we haven’t gotten that far yet in our conversations,” Taylor said.
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*Featured/top image: Brooks City-Base signature gateway. Courtesy photo.