Niagara bottled water. Courtesy photo.
Niagara bottled water. Courtesy photo.

San Antonio’s business-as-usual is putting our water future at risk. Last week Brooks City Base sought rush-rush rezoning approval to allow Niagara Bottling to put San Antonio’s water in plastic bottles to sell nationwide. This, while San Antonio Water System (SAWS) wants us to spend $3.4 billion on the Vista Ridge pipeline to bring incredibly expensive additional water to San Antonio. City Council fortunately paused the zoning deal, but it did not kill it.  It should; it is a bad deal for our community.

The first problem is the very idea of having a bottling company in San Antonio. Despite recent rains, we are not a water-rich region. No water bottling company is sustainable here, no matter how much water we pipe in from other areas. Niagara is trying to get out of the Los Angeles region precisely because of California’s water crisis. Why should San Antonio allow Niagara to come here to hasten our own?

If we are to be prepared for the impacts of climate change and the very real likelihood of severe droughts, San Antonio must protect our water supply vigilantly. We live in a semi-arid region that is going to experience, in the foreseeable future, what researchers call “unprecedented drought conditions.” New data, reported this March in the New York Times, suggest the strong probability of a 35-year-long drought before the end of this century. How can we withstand such a drought?  Not by increasing consumption of water. Not by exempting existing commercial, industrial, and institutional SAWS customers from having to take appropriate measures to increase their water-efficiency. And certainly not by allowing water to new businesses whose profits come only from selling our water elsewhere.

SAWS’ “solution” to our regularly dry circumstances is the costly Vista Ridge pipeline, which would bring supposedly “excess” water from Burleson County at a much higher price than water we already have. SAWS expects current residential rate-payers to pay for that pipeline, while giving new businesses like Niagara cut-rate access to the water that is already here.

SAWS calls Vista Ridge water “drought-proof.” That is a gross misrepresentation. Water from the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer is already being overcommitted and might not be there for us if drought conditions persist.  Rather than encouraging increased conservation and water efficiency – especially from San Antonio businesses – SAWS and the Chamber of Commerce are promoting San Antonio as a place of “abundant” water.  That is a recipe for water disaster.

Picture San Antonio in 2035 with another 800,000 residents, mainly living in sprawling suburban developments with lush mega-lawns and water-gulping landscaping. Imagine many new businesses – resort hotels with golf courses and luxurious spas, refineries, and bottling companies – all attracted by this so-called “abundant water,” subsidized by city residents.

Then severe drought hits. The city can’t get any of those profitable water-guzzling businesses to cut back their water usage significantly. Residents who have never learned how to live with drought are furious about watering restrictions. The city finds itself using more water than projected from the Edwards Aquifer, just when the amount of water coming from Vista Ridge is reduced by 50% or more, because the Carrizo-Wilcox is overdrawn.

We must not wait until we are 10 years into a mega-drought to start preparing for living with drought as our “new normal,” thanks to climate change.  To deny the possibility – indeed probability – of serious, prolonged drought is to set our city up for a water crisis more disastrous than that facing Los Angeles right now. Such a drought in our community would not be a “natural disaster,” but rather a humanly caused one.

The Vista Ridge deal was a bad decision in the first place, because it puts San Antonio at serious financial risk.  But more serious is the fact that the mirage of “abundant” Vista Ridge water is preventing our community from investing its effort and money in local measures that could truly prepare us for the future. I describe some of those measures in “Re-Framing San Antonio’s Water Future,” which is available online here

Brooks City Base must not be allowed to offer Niagara Bottling access to San Antonio’s water.  If Niagara is allowed to build its bottling plant, we will be stuck with a water-guzzling company that refuses to cut its production when San Antonio is in another drought. San Antonio should allow only sustainable growth. Niagara and similar businesses are certainly not sustainable.

Those of us who have studied water issues appreciate the Council’s postponement of the zoning decision about Niagara, which the Brooks staff tried to sneak through without notice. And we agree with Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8)’s assertion, as quoted by the Rivard Report, that “the implications for our water supply need to be discussed in full public view.” That’s a good start, but not enough.

Council must take ample time to consider the policy issue of whether to allow new so-called “development” that would gobble up our community’s precious water. Vista Ridge must be reconsidered in light of a better vision for our community’s water future. 

Council must also listen to the people about this policy matter. In the past, time and time-again, our community has defended our water. We want to be part of protecting our water future. 

*Featured/top image: Niagara bottled water. Courtesy photo.

Related Stories:

Zoning Change for Water Bottling Plant Paused for a Second Look

Bottled Water Company Eyes San Antonio

Committee Approves New SAWS Rate Structure

Council Approves Two Year SAWS Rate Increase

San Antonio’s Water Security Tied to Health of its Neighbors

Meredith McGuire, PhD, is a professor (emerita) of sociology and anthropology at Trinity University and co-chair of the Alamo Sierra Club Conservation Committee.