A rural groundwater district that regulates the pumping of aquifers used for the San Antonio Water System’s Vista Ridge pipeline is investigating whether the flushing of Vista Ridge water down a San Antonio creek meets the legal definition of waste.

At their July 16 meeting, all 10 board members of the Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District unanimously voted to investigate whether the private companies that hold pumping permits violated the district’s rules and state water codes meant to stop water waste. Board members learned of SAWS flushing the Vista Ridge water down Mud Creek in Stone Oak on June 10, when the Rivard Report published a story about the discharge.

In a letter addressed to Ross Cummings, an Austin-based water marketer whose company, Blue Water Vista Ridge, holds pumping permits to supply Vista Ridge, Post Oak board members wrote that their district could reduce the volume in Cummings’ pumping permits or levy fines that could reach up to $10,000 per day the waste occurred.

Ross Cummings, president of water marketing firm BlueWater Systems. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“Despite the knowledge that the taps were finally being turned on for delivery of the water, as well as ensuring that there were no hiccups in such delivery, [Blue Water Vista Ridge] seems to have failed to even once check with SAWS once water began to flow to ensure, as is its duty under the permits, that all water was being put to beneficial use and not wasted,” the letter states.

Reached by phone Monday, Cummings declined to comment.

In two other letters sent July 17, Post Oak officials called for an investigation by State regulators and for SAWS to do its own internal review to ensure that San Antonio’s municipally owned utility is not wasting water drawn from aquifers in Post Oak’s territory.

“While we recognize that we do not appear to have any regulatory authority over SAWS, we will look at those whom we know we have regulatory authority over, as well as other avenues that we may have available to us to ensure that such waste does not occur again,” stated one letter from Post Oak board president Sidney Youngblood to SAWS board chair Heriberto “Berto” Guerra, Jr.

Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District board president Sidney Youngblood. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

In a videoconference interview Monday, SAWS Chief Operating Officer Steve Clouse said that SAWS had no choice but to slowly integrate Vista Ridge water into its system step-by-step from north to south, flushing it down local waterways when necessary.

That approach is meant to ensure that the chemistry of the new water source does not leach materials out of San Antonio pipes and turn residents’ tap water red – or worse, Clouse said. A similar problem in Flint, Michigan, left residents’ water contaminated with lead beginning in 2014. 

“After Flint, Michigan, imagine the terror people would have if all of a sudden their water is changing color like that,” Clouse said. “So we knew we had to be very careful, very methodical. You don’t get a second chance to bring a new system like this online if you scare the public.” 

The Post Oak district is one of more than 100 such local governing bodies across Texas that regulate the pumping of groundwater. Post Oak’s boundaries match Burleson and Milam counties, a rural area northeast of Austin home to prolific sections of the Carrizo and Wilcox aquifers.

Scattered among the rolling hills of farm and ranch land are wells that tap the aquifers, each capable of pumping thousands of gallons per minute. A pump station outside the small town of Caldwell then pushes the groundwater into Vista Ridge, an underground pipeline up to 5 feet in diameter in some places.

The Vista Ridge contract that City Council approved in 2014 requires SAWS to buy up to 16.3 billion gallons per year for 30 years from the consortium of private companies that own and operate the 140-mile pipeline. SAWS then will take ownership of the line in 2050.

Following the Rivard Report story in June, Post Oak members learned that half of the 20 million gallons per day being delivered at the time was being sent down Mud Creek. SAWS had stopped discharging the water to Mud Creek as of June 12, SAWS vice president Donovan Burton told Post Oak general manager Gary Westbrook in an email last month.

Post Oak’s letters come as SAWS finishes work on its Central Water Integration Pipeline and other work to connect Vista Ridge. A tunnel in the Stone Oak area to push Vista Ridge water south ended up months behind schedule, with the pipeline’s total costs costs reaching nearly $80 million over SAWS’ original projections in 2015.

Work on the tunnel project is now complete, Clouse said. SAWS is currently integrating Vista Ridge water near its pump station on Bitters Road, with the next step to move the water south to the area around its Basin Pump Station on Jones-Maltsberger Road. SAWS was flushing water near Bitters at one point, but no longer, Clouse said.

“Around Basin, our final station, is where we have the most and the oldest pipes,” Clouse said. “So we’re very cautiously moving into that older section and we’re using our experience with these newer sections.”

SAWS expects Vista Ridge to be fully integrated by Sept. 1, Clouse said.

Though water was flowing through the pipeline as early as January, the Vista Ridge contract required SAWS to begin paying for the water on April 15. Including costs such as electricity needed to pump the water to San Antonio, Vista Ridge costs SAWS customers close to $2,000 per acre-foot, making the water some of the most expensive in Texas. Over the past five years, the costs of Vista Ridge have added $9.22 per month to the average SAWS residential user’s bill.

After learning of the water flushing, the Post Oak board was “was surprised/shocked by this revelation of disposal, especially since we have learned so much about the needs of San Antonio to receive this water to serve its customers,” the letter to SAWS states.

“When your staff allowed such gallonage to be delivered to the Agua Vista plant, your staff was well aware that it was in no position to receive the full volume of such water,” it continues. “We certainly understand that the Agua Vista plant needed to be tested. But the infrastructure necessary to receive the entire 20 [million gallons per day] was not completed and was not expected to be completed until mid-July 2020. One must ask why the water was allowed to be delivered when that action would lead to a waste of such an amount of water.”

Asked about the timing on the completion of the Central Water Integration Pipeline, Clouse said it was “irrelevant” and that SAWS would have needed to flush the water regardless of when Vista Ridge started flowing.

“If the tunnel was ready, I would still tell the [SAWS] board, and I did tell the board, even before all this blew up, I would still follow this same step-wise manner,” Clouse said.

In a separate July 17 letter to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the State’s environmental regulator, the Post Oak board asked the TCEQ to investigate whether SAWS lawfully discharged the water.

In an email on Monday, TCEQ spokesman Brian McGovern said the agency is reviewing the information Post Oak provided.

“The groundwater permits issued by the district call for the full permitted amount of water to be used for a beneficial purpose and not wasted,” McGovern said. “[SAWS] receives this groundwater via the Vista Ridge pipeline. TCEQ regulates the diversion and use of surface waters of the state but does not regulate groundwater production or use.”

The Post Oak board reserved its strongest language for Cummings, whose company was before the district in February seeking an increase in its permit volume by 1.6 billion additional gallons per year. The board granted the request.

“This board has always had heightened concerns relative to waste of the groundwater and several board members are now lasered into the waste of this water,” the Post Oak letter to Cummings states. “These concerns seem well-founded since Vista Ridge or any other entity with an ownership interest in the permit or the water transported to SAWS was nowhere to be found when this disposal was occurring.”

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.