Children play in the splash pads at Yanaguana Garden. Credit: Rachel Chaney / San Antonio Report

The recent City Council kerfuffle over year-round watering restrictions should not be the end of the matter. The current San Antonio Water System rate structure encourages wasting water by subsidizing large water users. This amounts to a tax on ordinary people to pay for water projects that do not benefit them. A close look at residential water use and the rate structure shows that SAWS is going down the wrong road.

Outdoor water use accounts for about one-third of SAWS’ water production each year. In 2011 – the hottest, driest year in San Antonio’s history – nearly half of all SAWS’ water was used for landscape watering. Using drinking-quality water for landscape is a foolish waste. Many sensible homeowners are converting their water-thirsty landscape to drought-tolerant native plants, removing automatic spray irrigation, and investing in rainwater collection. They are making sure they are prepared for the future.

Homes with automatic sprinklers use 50% more water annually than do other homes, and 70% more water during the summer months. Fortunately, only 5% of residences use extreme amounts per month. Still, more than 25% are using more water in the summertime than they should. There is a strong correlation between high water use and higher priced homes with automatic irrigation.

A 2013 map of the top 1% residential water users in San Antonio. Credit: Courtesy / SAWS Conservation Plan Narrative

When San Antonio was in the fourth year of the recent drought, Robert Rivard’s insightful article connected the excessive use of water with income-segregated patterns of suburban sprawl that resulted in whole subdivisions of very wealthy residents who used lavish amounts of water for their lawns, fountains, and pools. Rivard raised the concern that existing drought restrictions were not strict enough to deter rich people from using outrageous amounts, even in Stage 4 drought conditions.

A few months later, the Edwards Aquifer Authority declared Stage 3 drought pumping cuts (35%), and then unprecedented Stage 4 restrictions (40%). Normally, those pumping cuts would have triggered San Antonio’s Stages 3 and 4 drought watering restrictions. In 2014, however, SAWS and the City manager decided not to tighten restrictions, since SAWS’ Aquifer Storage and Recovery had supply in reserve.

What happened without more restrictions?

Most residential customers reduced their water usage anyhow – so much so that the average August water usage dropped by more than one-third between 2011 and 2013, and kept dropping further in 2014 and 2015. At the same time, however, SAWS’ Top 100 water users actually increased their water usage significantly. According to a 2016 article in the San Antonio Express-News about said 100 SAWS residential customers, as the drought deepened, those residences increased their water usage by 50% between 2013 and 2014 alone (from 73.8 million gallons over seven months to 112 million gallons).

The Aquifer Storage and Recovery is, in principle, a wise strategy for protecting water reserves underground so they do not evaporate. Using those reserves to allow people to avoid drought watering restrictions, however, is a bad strategy. If the drought had lasted much longer, that water could have become essential supply, as regional groundwater and surface water sources became overdrawn.

The 2015 SAWS Semiannual Water Management Report stated: “… in 2014, SAWS experienced a 35% cumulative year-end cut back to its Edwards pumping permits, the most severe in the history of Edwards Aquifer regulation. However, as a result of the community’s investment in diversified water resources . . . ratepayers were able to offset the need for deeper water restrictions.”

The ratepayers did not choose to contribute to the costs of new water resources. On the contrary, an earlier survey showed that 74% would choose greater conservation over paying more for new water supplies. The only residential ratepayers who benefitted from avoiding deeper restrictions were a small number of wealthy residents.

So how much did those ratepayers contribute? By avoiding the Stage 4 restrictions, they actually saved lots of money for a surcharge that Stage 4 restrictions trigger. For example, particularly heavy users had monthly bills for 250,000 gallons, so their monthly surcharge alone would have been $1,200 or more.

The greater injustice was that the 2015 rate structure change – touted by SAWS as promoting conservation – actually reduced the rates for the heaviest users. The old rate structure had four tiers, with the three tiers using more than around 6,000 gallons/month having much higher rates for the summer season than the rest of the year.

SAWS presented the chart below to illustrate old and new rate structures (Note: actual usage does not peak at 24,000 but rather at more than 250,000 gallons some months):

The top of the highest tier continues about 40 | blocks (6,000 gals. each) above the top of the chart. Credit: Courtesy / SAWS

To make up for the loss of the summer rate income, SAWS added a 29% increase in fixed charges on customer bills of all but those who used less than 2,992 gallons a month – a usage rate so low that most households with more than three people would have difficulty avoiding the new monthly charge. So, in effect, the families who were not irrigating anything and had lower per capita household incomes were forced to subsidize huge savings for wealthy, heavy users.

The heaviest user in 2015 took 2.5 million gallons in just seven months. The old rate structure would have made his monthly usage bill, on average, $3,193; the same usage in the new rate structure cost only $3,027. A cost-reduction of $166/month – hardly an incentive to conserve.

Instead of reducing the heaviest users’ rates, SAWS should be required to peg the cost of water for the top three or four tiers of the new rate structure to actual costs of the extra water that heavy users demand. Right now, that’s brackish desalination water. When that expensive water supply project was being designed, a SAWS spokesperson told the Rivard Report in 2014: “The proposed brackish desalination project can be phased as the water is needed, allowing the costs to be spread out over time. The project is also able to be ramped down in years or periods of heavy rainfall, reducing operating costs.”

Thus, when the heaviest users stop using so much water, SAWS would not incur so much expense to produce the water. The next phase of buildout could be postponed until there was enough justifiable demand for more water. No one but heavy users should have to pay for this highly expensive water source.

The SAWS 2012 Water Management Plan underestimated residents’ willingness to conserve. SAWS set an unambitious goal of reducing the total gallons per person per day (GPCD) to 136 by 2019, and to 135 by 2024. But people’s voluntary cutbacks resulted in huge drops in residential usage, reducing the overall water use (including industrial, commercial, and municipal use) from 143 GPCD in 2011 to 118 in 2015. We’re way ahead of schedule, but SAWS is still acting as if we need new water sources.

In fact, SAWS used that grossly overestimated per capita demand figure (135) to justify acquiring a new, extremely expensive source of water to meet future demand – the Vista Ridge pipeline.

Best management practices call for: (1) carefully conserving water, first and foremost, (2) relying on the least expensive local water resources, second, and (3) only after it is certain that justifiable demand requires more water, should a community start construction of a large project – ideally one that can be expanded in phases as demand grows.

By those criteria, the desalination plant was premature, but the Vista Ridge pipeline is completely unjustified. There is no excuse for committing to acquiring 16.3 billion gallons per year – only to allow some residents to avoid Stages 3 and 4 drought watering restrictions. It is unsustainable to cause the depletion of someone else’s aquifer just to supply water-intensive homes and businesses in our community.

So, if most of San Antonio residents voluntarily continue to increase their conservation efforts, who is going to pay for all that extremely expensive water that is not really needed? SAWS CEO Robert Puente now threatens substantial rate hikes – on top of the already-approved nearly 50% increase between 2016 and 2021 – if water use drops, due to reduced irrigation in the summer months.

SAWS’ misjudgment of demand led also to poor water usage projections for the SA Tomorrow planning process. Relying on SAWS’ projections, SA Tomorrow set the 2040 goal for water usage at 110 GPCD. Now, however, the SAWS Water Management Plan 2017 projects that San Antonio will reach 110 sometime around 2025 and, by 2040, i it will drop below 100. This is a better projection, but still too slow of a reduction. Future droughts will be deeper and longer than past ones, so drought preparedness is critical.

How low can San Antonio go? The experience of Melbourne, Australia suggests that San Antonio could reduce its GPCD to 110 before 2020, and to less than 72 by 2040, SA Tomorrow’s last year. At that rate of usage, even with higher population increases than previously projected, San Antonio would use less water than it is using now for years after 2050.

San Antonio has been a leader in conservation, but we got sidetracked by the goal of acquiring “abundant water.” Instead of inciting Water Wars, Texas needs to learn from Australia’s experience with the “Big Dry.” We don’t need the pipeline “Gridzilla” that some legislators are proposing in Austin.

The Alamo Group of the Sierra Club proffers, instead, the Alternative True, Sustainable Water Management Plan as a better way forward – not only for San Antonio, but for all of Texas. We don’t have to wait for a crisis, like a 20-year-long drought, to come to terms with the reality of supply and demand of water in this semi-arid part of the country.

For more information about the Alternative True, Sustainable Water Management Plan, as well as the innovative approaches of Melbourne and Los Angeles, click here. 

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Meredith McGuire

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