Since the San Antonio Water System began keeping records in 2006, the city of San Antonio has never had to declare its most severe drought restrictions for SAWS customers.
The city has issued Stage 1 and Stage 2 drought restrictions, which limit the watering of residential lawns to once per week at specified times, for SAWS customers often over the past 16 years.
But it has so far avoided having to declare Stage 3 or Stage 4 drought restrictions, which limit water use even more drastically.
In the midst of an unusually hot and dry May that is likely foretelling an even drier summer, could San Antonio residents soon be facing their first Stage 3 drought restrictions?
The answer appears to be no — at least, not for SAWS customers.
While San Antonio is facing the most significant drought it has experienced since 2014, thanks to the diversification of SAWS water sources, the utility is well stocked to supply its customers through a torrid summer, said Karen Guz, director of water conservation at SAWS.
“We’ve had almost 30 years now to prepare for this,” Guz said.
Over the past two decades, the utility has expanded the number of water sources San Antonio relies on beyond the Edwards Aquifer, which supplies about half the water San Antonians use.
Today, SAWS’ portfolio also includes water from the Carrizo Aquifer, the Trinity Aquifer, and Vista Ridge, plus water stored underground, said Anne Hayden, SAWS’ communications manager.
It’s a different story for Edwards Aquifer Authority, however.
As the groundwater conservation district that oversees the Edwards Aquifer, the EAA has its own critical period management plan, which has five stages dictating how much permit holders like SAWS can pump out of the aquifer.
For both the EAA and city, Stage 1 drought restrictions are triggered when the Edwards Aquifer’s monitoring well drops below an average of 660 feet above sea level for 10 days, while Stage 2 is triggered when that average drops below 650 feet.
The two systems diverge from there.
While the EAA’s Stage 3 is triggered when the Edwards Aquifer’s monitoring well drops below an average of 640 feet for 10 days, the city evaluates at this point whether further restrictions are needed.
“The ordinance was deliberately designed differently when it comes to Stage 3,” Guz said. “At that point, we ask the question, ‘How are things looking given the forecasted conditions, the current demand for water and the current supply? Is it necessary to have further regulations put in place at this time?’ And if the answer is no, then we stay the course and continue being very diligent about Stage 2 regulations.”
The trigger for the Edwards Aquifer Authority’s Stage 3 restrictions are drawing near — the monitoring well’s current 10-day average is about 644 feet above sea level, just 4 feet from triggering Stage 3.
If the EAA does enter Stage 3 water restrictions, that means permit holders — including SAWS, will have to dial back what it pumps out. Other permit holders include the cities of New Braunfels and San Marcos, and Texas State University.
The EAA last entered Stage 3 drawing restrictions in 2014, said EAA General Manager Roland Ruiz, near the end of the worst drought Texas has seen suffered since the 1950s drought of record.
The intent of the EAA’s restrictions is to ensure aquifer and spring flow levels during times of drought to preserve habitats for threatened and endangered species.
But while the EAA is close to Stage 3, the city and SAWS are not, Guz said.
“We’re in a good pretty good position, what with having alternative resources and having better management practices like watering rules in place for the people that live here,” Guz said. “That’s why it’s not an emergency for us like it sort of is in the West. It’s just something that we prepare for.”