A worker installs a portion of pipeline. Photo courtesy of SAWS Facebook page.
A worker installs a portion of pipeline. Photo courtesy of SAWS Facebook page.

City Council unanimously approved increased water rates and rate structure on Thursday, a strong display of confidence in the water utility’s ongoing efforts to diversity the city’s water supply and to encourage greater water conservation.

Thursday’s vote follows two years of study, deliberation, and debate over the city’s long-range water future and the Council’s unanimous vote in October 2014 to endorse the $3.4 billion Vista Ridge water project.

Starting in 2016, San Antonio Water System (SAWS) will add four new usage and pricing tiers to the current four-tiered system. SAWS officials have said the new structure rewards customers who conserve and penalizes excessive water usage. Residents who conserve water and use less than approximately 3,000 gallons during their monthly billing cycle will be billed at the lowest rate. Additionally, SAWS will expand and promote its affordability discount for low-income customers.

Rates are projected to increase 7.5% in 2016 and 7.9% in 2017. The new rates will take effect on Jan. 1.

Ben Gorzell, the City’s chief financial officer, maintained that the approved rates are a cap, and they may actually be lower than expected. He added that SAWS will return to Council in 2018 and 2019 to shore up projected rates then and even lower them if possible. The new rates will help to fund water and sewer infrastructure improvements, the first phase of SAWS’ brackish water desalination project in South Bexar County, and the controversial Vista Ridge water pipeline.

The latter is planned to pump 50,000 acre-feet of water to SAWS through a 142-mile pipeline from Burleson County.

SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente said the rate restructuring supports a project that represents “tomorrow’s water at today’s price,” that it is crucial for San Antonio to take advantage of the current price of water.

When water begins flowing through the pipeline from the Simsboro and Carrizo aquifers to San Antonio, which is scheduled to start in 2020, SAWS may sell surplus water to communities along the Interstate 35 corridor, possibly reducing future rate increases.

Puente described the project as a way to let San Antonio “help our neighbors while helping ourselves. … This is truly an opportunity to secure our water future for decades to come.”

Before the Council deliberated on the new rates and structure, more than 30 people took to the podium to offer their opinions. Local business and civic leaders said the City was being proactive about securing future water supply to accommodate San Antonio’s continuing growth.

Former Mayor Henry Cisneros, who now chairs the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce board, said he was convinced the new rates and structure do not disproportionately affect low-income SAWS ratepayers, as many critics contend. Cisneros said he felt confident that SAWS’ affordability programs can help those ratepayers who may need aid when the new rates kick in.

“It’s threading the needle, balancing our future with our needs now,” Cisneros added.

Groups ranging from the Sierra Club to the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center maintained their opposition of the rate restructuring and Vista Ridge project and spoke at the podium while others held up signs in protest.

A sign outside City Council Chambers in opposition to the Vista Ridge project. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.
A sign was placed outside City Council Chambers in opposition to the Vista Ridge project. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

They fear the new rates will negatively affect many low-income residents and that Vista Ridge would benefit only businesses and developers in a city trying to address urban sprawl. Others said the Vista Ridge pipeline would have a detrimental effect on the environment and that SAWS should instead emphasize existing water supply resources and conservation.

Alan Montemayor said the debate over Vista Ridge and SAWS’ rate plan has disenfranchised many residents and it all comes down to SAWS and the City being accountable to “the people,” the ratepayers.

“The financing and structure of this deal circumvents the democratic process,” Montemayor added.

Mayor Ivy Taylor said she understands criticisms, especially from individuals worried that any rate increase will impact their wallets. But she voiced confidence that the new rate structure a will ensure a long-term water supply, invests in our water infrastructure, supports continued growth and economic development.

“I know that many people are living on tight budgets and any increase in expenses, no matter how small, can make a big difference,” stated Taylor in an email after the vote. “I believe that the approved rate change package has been structured in such a way as to minimize impact on the most vulnerable residents in our community and in a way that supports one of our most important goals — the conservation of water.”

Each council member shared several questions and concerns with Puente, but many added that acting now is in the City’s best interest and is essential for securing current prices related to the financing of the Vista Ridge project.

Councilmember Mike Gallagher (D10) said businesses and even the local military bases do look to the cost of water service as a means of measuring viability of either staying in San Antonio or going elsewhere.

“We gotta plan for the future, and our kids’ future. It’s not just about now,” he said.

Councilmember Roberto Trevino (D1) and some colleagues asked SAWS to return to the Council every six months with a report on how the new rate structure is affecting ratepayers and how Vista Ridge is proceeding. Puente agreed to follow through and schedule such reports.

Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8) repeated his request for SAWS to consider making permanent local Stage I water restrictions as a way to encourage more conservation year round. Puente said SAWS will continue its review of that possibility.

*Top image: A worker installs a portion of pipeline. Photo courtesy of SAWS Facebook page. 

Related Stories:

City Council Poised for Key Vote on Water Rates

Cisneros: City Council Should Approve SAWS Rate Changes

Commentary: Is the Vista Ridge Groundwater Reliable?

Water Report Author Fields Questions From City Council

Final Water Report Author: Errors of Draft ‘Fixed’

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.