After more than four hours of citizen comment for and against the proposed $3.4 billion Vista Ridge contract, City Council voted unanimously to approve the 30-year pipeline and water purchase deal Thursday.

At times during the long session, Council chambers echoed with opponents protesting in loud voices. “Not in my name!” they repeated, one after another. The words of supporters, however, resonated with equal force. Speakers recalled lost opportunities in past decades to diversify San Antonio’s water supply at much lower cost, opportunities that more risk-averse City Councils squandered.

As the morning session began, the City’s Chief Financial Officer Ben Gorzell presented Council with the broad and now familiar outlines of the contract. Click here to review his presentation.

He was followed by SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente, who added background on the negotiations and the water utility’s commitment to conservation initiatives, even with 50,000 acre-feet of water being added to the city’s supply each year starting in 2020. Click here to review Puente’s presentation.

“I believe the vote you take today will be the most important and historic vote you ever take,” Puente told Council members. “You can be the Council that helps create a vibrant and local economy and water security for decades.”

SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente
SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente

Puente repeatedly offered assurance to the Council and those in the audience of SAWs’ commitment to water conservation initiatives.

“We want to continue to be the nationwide innovator in water conservation,” he said. “This is the diversified water project we have been chasing for 25 years.”

Following their remarks, a slow procession of more than three dozen citizen speakers came to the podium, some in two and threes, to speak in favor or against the proposal. It was a strange, yet democratic mix of executives in business suits and community organizers in denims, each passionately committed to his or her cause. Individuals traded minutes to give speakers more than their two minutes of allotted time, while organizations, such as the Sierra Club, were allotted five minutes to make their case.

Business and civic leaders praised the Vista Ridge deal as one that would guarantee San Antonio’s water security, continued economic development, and job creation for decades to come.

“In 1976, the City Council had the opportunity to buy thousands of acre-feet at $33 an acre-foot, and they didn’t do it,” said Manuel Palaez, a local attorney and chairman of Brooks City-Base. “The council back then gave in to fear. We ask you today: please do not give in to fear.”

Opponents saw it as latest misstep in a long line of pro-development policy initiatives.

Former City Councilmember María Antonietta Berriozábal
Former City Councilmember María Antonietta Berriozábal

Former Council member and mayoral candidate María Berriozábal reflected on past city debates over water issues such as the twice-failed effort to build Applewhite Reservoir on the Southside, which was rejected twice by voters in 1991 and 1995.

“The same people supporting this were supporting it (Applewhite) then,” Berriozábal said. ” That was a mistake and the people knew it and voted it down.

“We have never had a project as expensive as this one, ever,” she said. “The magnitude of this project makes it unique. I agree with Mr. Puente that this vote is historic.”

The use of the word “historic” was their only point of agreement.

“Not in my name!” proclaimed Berriozábal as she left the podium. One by one, her fellow opponents stood up and declared, “Not in my name.”

Many in opposition asked for more time to study the lengthy contract, while others claimed, somewhat improbably, to be caught unaware by the moment of decision, despite months of community events, negotiating sessions open to the public and media coverage. Puente said SAWS has conducted 188 public presentations of the Vista Ridge deal since the summer, 49 of which he personally attended.

A group of six women from the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center appeared together at the microphone. One of the women railed angrily against the Council for “lining up like sheep” to approve the deal, while accusing members of the business community with “lining their pockets” at the expense of working-class ratepayers.

Citizens protest the SAWS-Vista Ridge water pipeline. Photo by Robert Rivard.
Citizens protest the SAWS-Vista Ridge water pipeline. Photo by Robert Rivard.

Mayor Ivy Taylor and all 10 Council members spoke at some length themselves, even as it became obvious that the measure was heading for certain passage. Most spoke of a sense of obligation to vote in favor of the complex, long-term commitment rather than repeat the mistakes of past City Councils.

Council’s approval, however, came with concerns over future rates and their impact on the city’s neediest families, the water utility’s continued commitment to conservation, and misgivings that not enough is being done to manage and control unchecked sprawl.

“I must say, I do feel the weight of history at this moment, both the weight of history that brought us to this point and the weight of history that calls on us to protect the future for our children,” Mayor Taylor said. “We can’t just stop by creating a plan. We actually have to live by it and implement it.”

Related Stories:

Two Mayors Lead Call for Approval of SAWS-Vista Ridge Deal

Commentary: The Case for the SAWS-Vista Ridge Deal

Council United on SAWS-Vista Ridge Deal

Citizens Rule the Night at City Council

Weighing the Costs of Water Security or Doing Nothing

SAWS Board Sends Vista Ridge Water Deal to City Council

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.