Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8) is leading the effort to delay a vote on proposed San Antonio Water System (SAWS) rate increases until a controversial water report is finalized by researchers at Texas A&M University’s Institute of Renewable Natural Resources (IRNR).
Voting before the report’s public release would be “putting the cart before the horse,” said Nirenberg, who initiated the report in February 2014. “We need information before we make the decision, not the other way around.”
City Council’s Transportation, Technology and Utilities Committee, on which Nirenberg serves, voted 3-2 in favor of formally recommending that the community and council members have time to review the final report before voting on SAWS’ two-year, 15.4% total rate increase proposal, tentatively scheduled for Oct. 29. Ultimately, the issue of whether to prioritize the report’s release before the vote will be decided by City Council during next week’s B Session on Wednesday at 2 p.m.
Mayor Ivy Taylor issued a statement Wednesday evening that outlined a plan to “finalize the timeline for a vote on SAWS rate restructuring and adjustment, which will occur no later than Nov. 19.”
The purpose of the report was to inform major policy decisions regarding water security and city planning. Nirenberg said at the time, the City needed a report to understand long-term water issues, independent from SAWS’ plans and analysis, and he made an impassioned case for waiting on Wednesday.
“I object to the notion that the public process is something that we can just simply check off the list,” he said. “It has to withstand this kind of scrutiny every time it comes up.”
The draft report, which was leaked to the media last month, “briefly describes and assigns risk ratings to 12 water-supply sources … (and) discusses 24 water issues important to San Antonio water security and assigns grades to the water-management and planning performance in terms of water security when addressing the issues.” The report also looked at those issues relating to the City of Fair Oaks Ranch.
It was critical of the $3.4 billion Vista Ridge water pipeline and classified it as a “high risk” project. What was supposed to be an internal process between the City, SAWS, and IRNR authors was prematurely exposed to the public before the IRNR could reconcile the City and its water utility’s review notes that officials say address “inaccuracies, omissions, and opinions” in the draft – most notably when it comes to the Vista Ridge project.
Some citizen groups are concerned that SAWS is pressuring IRNR to change the findings of the report and “water down,” so to speak, its criticism of Vista Ridge – a controversial project designed to provide up to 16.3 billion gallons of water from Burleson County annually for 30 years by 2020. Critics of Vista Ridge cite environmental and financial threats to surrounding communities and its aquifers. The Vista Ridge deal was unanimously approved by City Council last October.
“The opponents of (Vista Ridge) are going to use anything they can to try to kill this project,” SAWS CEO Robert Puente said after the meeting.
After a briefing on the rate increases and the reasons why SAWS is asking for them – to pay for the $3.4 billion Vista Ridge water pipeline, operate the new desalinization plant, and improve sewer lines – from Puente, IRNR Director Raul Lopez ran through the remaining process the report has to go through.
IRNR Director Lopez said the scientific peer review and reconciliation of comments “does not change the essence of the report. … They’ll be making minor adjustments in language and tone (to) improve readability.”
A scientific panel of four independent, anonymous reviewers – each of which have at least 20 years of experience in water policy, resource economics, and/or hydrology – will ensure a “scientific, accurate, and objective” final report, Lopez said. “The decision of what to keep falls on us, (but) Dr. Finch’s report will be kept intact.”
Rather than rewrite the report, the panel will add its own comments and perspectives. Calvin Finch is the lead author of the draft report who has since retired from the IRNR and will not be participating in finalizing the draft.
The $100,000 bill for the water report was picked up by the City of Fair Oaks Ranch in return for releasing a 130-acre subdivision from the City of San Antonio’s jurisdiction.
If the report comes out with time for review before Oct. 29, the SAWS vote should stick to that timeline, Nirenberg said, but that looks unlikely. The original intent was for the report to come out months ago in February, but an expanded scope and a prolonged review processes caused delays. The report leaked in July is the report’s second version – the result of the first round of comments from SAWS and the City.
Lopez told the committee that the final report would likely be done by the “end of October.” Even if the report was released by the 27th, that only leaves two days and one B Session meeting before the vote.
“Is there a magic thing that’s happening on the 29th?” Nirenberg asked Puente and City staff during the meeting.
There is no mandate or technical need for the vote to happen that day, Puente said, but that specific date has already been put out there as a symbol for moving forward with Vista Ridge because much of the rate increase is directly paying for the pipeline.
“The concern (over a delay) is that signals (will be) sent out to the rest of San Antonio, to the rest of the state of Texas and to Wall Street essentially saying that our community is having second thoughts about this project,” Puente said. “I have a mandate from my board and I have a mandate from this Council – actually an 11-0 (vote) from last year – to make this project happen and that’s what we’re doing.
“(A delay) shows, I think, a lack of commitment on our part to our Vista Ridge partners,” Puente continued. “It will get the perception out there that we’re not addressing this concern – that we’re not serious about making sure we have water for this community.”
Nirenberg said that in order to continue to support the Vista Ridge project, the Council should be reassured every step of the way. Councilmember Ray Lopez (D6) also told Puente that established benchmarks for updates on the project should be scheduled – approval of the deal does not mean blindly supporting the project from here on out, no matter what.
Nirenberg, Councilmember Shirley Gonzales (D5) and Councilmember Rey Saldaña (D4) joined Nirenberg to vote in favor of recommending that a vote wouldn’t occur until after the final report is reviewed. Councilmember Joe Krier (D9) and Councilmember Lopez, who serves as the committee’s chair, voted against it.
“None of us are saying to accelerate the report,” Councilmember Lopez said, not wanting the process rushed. “We want it complete.
“But as an individual who has read the (draft) report, I don’t need more information to make up my mind,” he added. “I’m a big boy.”
Customers are looking at a projected average monthly rate hike of 7.5% in 2016, and 7.9% in 2017. The rate adjustments also assumes integration of rates and infrastructure in 2017 from the former Bexar Metropolitan Water District, which SAWS acquired in 2012.
Finch attended the meeting, but was not asked to speak during the discussion. Afterwards, he said he was pleased that the case for delaying a vote on SAWS rate increases was advancing.
“It seems reasonable to me that before these decisions are made that everything be considered,” Finch said. “It’s unfortunate that the draft was released. And you know, it’d probably be an interesting story to find out who released it and why.”
The report, 235 pages long, also pointed out a “long list” of positives about things that the City, SAWS, and the community are doing right including public input processes, SAWS’ BexarMet Integration, habitat conservation plan, water conservation, drought management, and the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program.
After all, it’s not a report about Vista Ridge, Finch said.
In an attempt to avoid delay, after hearing that the final report would not include alterations of Finch’s report, Krier made a motion to just accept the draft as the final version.
“If (IRNR) doesn’t anticipate any substantive changes then it seems to me that we ought to run on that,” Krier said. “We have a report. Let’s use it.”
The motion was not seconded.
IRNR Director Lopez explained that the peer review process is “critical” and will add clarity to the document as well as additional review notes for added perspective on Finch’s draft.
*Top image: Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8) responds to IRNR Director Raul Lopez. Photo by Scott Ball.