Despite the scorching heat wave and sweeping drought across Texas, San Antonio residents need not worry about having enough water this summer, San Antonio Water System officials said Monday.

While the Edwards Aquifer Authority implemented Stage 3 water restrictions for its permit holders, which includes SAWS, the water utility’s customers will remain under the SAWS’ Stage 2 restrictions.

That’s due to the diversification of SAWS’ water sources. In addition to water from the Edwards, SAWS’ portfolio includes water from the Carrizo Aquifer, the Trinity Aquifer, and Vista Ridge, plus water stored underground, said Anne Hayden, SAWS’ communications manager.

SAWS got a federal pat on the back for its efforts Monday from visiting Environmental Protection Agency officials during a tour of the utility’s H2Oaks facility.

H2Oaks is unique in that it is the only place in the U.S. where three sources of water are processed in one plant: it desalinates brackish water from the Wilcox Aquifer, stores Edwards Aquifer water underground to be used later and pulls water from the Carrizo Aquifer.

Extracted Carrizo water is close to drinkable as is, but all three water sources are chemically and physically altered at the facility to look and taste like Edwards Aquifer water, said SAWS Chief Operations Officer Steve Clouse.

EPA Assistant Administrator Radhika Fox, who works out of the agency’s Office of Water in California, called the facility “forward-thinking.” She was joined by EPA Regional Administrator for Region 6, which includes San Antonio, Earthea Nance, who pointed out that the facility provides resilience to drought.

“That’s what we need more of [across Texas],” Nance said.

The pair were visiting H2Oaks to learn more about how H2Oaks processes multiple sources at one site. Fox was in San Antonio Monday as a featured speaker for the American Water Works Association ACE22 Water Conference, which concludes Wednesday.

“I truly think that what’s happening here in San Antonio is the kind of thing that we need all across the western United States,” she said.

Water from the Carizo Aquifer goes through this cascading aerator to remove iron and add oxygen. Eventually the water flows to the clarifiers across the road where solids sink to the bottom. A SAWS official explains that this is part of the process to the Carizo water to match the Edwards Aquifer water.
Water from the Carrizo Aquifer goes through this cascading aerator to remove iron and add oxygen. Eventually, the water flows to “clarifiers” across the road where solids sink to the bottom. A SAWS official said this is part of the process to make Carrizo water match Edwards Aquifer water. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

The Edwards Aquifer Authority, the groundwater conservation district that oversees the Edwards Aquifer, declares Stage 3 when the 10-day average of the J-17 monitoring well reaches 640 feet or below. Under Stage 3, withdrawal amounts by permit holders are reduced by 35%. The EAA officially declared Stage 3, effective immediately, on Monday.

While SAWS is an EAA permit holder, the Edwards Aquifer has come to represent a smaller percentage of the water utility’s portfolio over the last two decades.

Today, the Edwards Aquifer accounts for only about half of SAWS’ water.

“SAWS has worked for 30 years to prepare for these kinds of Edwards cutbacks,” said SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente. “We are well prepared with diversified water resources and reasonable watering rules in place.”

Following a 40-minute presentation and tour around the H2Oaks facility Monday, Fox said she hopes to take the best practices from SAWS’ facility to help develop others.

As part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Congress earmarked $50 billion for the EPA to invest in the nation’s water infrastructure. Out of this funding, Fox said she hopes to see facilities like H2Oaks built across the country.

Fox called this federal investment in water infrastructure projects “unprecedented,” and said now is the time for other water providers to expand their own diversification efforts. Doing so could help stabilize water resources in places such as Las Vegas, she said, which like Texas are facing longer and more frequent droughts.

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.