Iris Dimmick

Water from the Edwards Aquifer has always been plentiful, pure and cheap, but it’s no longer adequate to serve the needs of the seventh largest city in the nation. The key to securing San Antonio’s future water supply is greater conservation, developing new sources of water to supplement the aquifer, and improved resource and drought management.

It will take a lot of money to do all those things. This means rate increases next year and into the forseeable future for residential and business consumers – a politically difficult pill to swallow this  election year or just about anytime in a city with a significant population of working poor and City Council representatives who must approve those rate increases and face voters every two years.

A range of local water policy makers and experts, however, are confident that a broad public outreach campaign will convince people that greater conservation and diversifying the water supply will prove to be an essential investment. After all, if people don’t support new measures and rates, officials say, the city and its economy could suffer damaging water shortages within a decade.

“We shouldn’t be afraid of leveling with the public about the costs,” Mayor Julián Castro told the audience at the Pearl Stables Wednesday during the San Antonio Clean Technology Forum and Mission Verde Alliance’s Water Forum III: Our Water, Our Future. Castro delivered opening remarks before the two-part panel discussion that included local and state policy makers and researchers. The program will be broadcast on KLRN-TV on Nov. 15 at 8 p.m.

Mayor Julián Castro at the podium. Behind him (left to right) sit panelists Calvin Finch, director of Texas A&M’s Institute of Water Conservation & Technology, District Eight City Councilman Reed Williams, SARA General Manager Suzanne Scott, and SAWS CEO Robert Puente.

“Our community is willing to pay,” San Antonio Water System (SAWS) President and CEO Robert Puente said, “if they know what they’re getting.”

What are we getting?

Along with continued water management programs, a $245 million inland desalination plant – the largest in the country –is being constructed to transform brackish water that will be pumped from the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer than runs under southern Bexar County.  Planned for a 2016 start, the plant will help diversify San Antonio’s water supply. (See a map of Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer here). More than $50 million has already been spent on design and preliminary construction.

Texas State Representative Lyle Larson (R) cited the state’s rainy-day fund as another possible source of funding for water projects. That money, however, is typically delegated by Governor Rick Perry and the House Appropriations Committee for smaller, short-term projects.

“It’s short-sighted if (the state) doesn’t fund it,” Larson said.

Larson and Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples both echoed support for San Antonio to become not just a buyer of water, but a seller – to enter the market with projects like the desalinization plant.

“SAWS needs to be a manufacturer of water,” District Eight City Councilman Reed Williams said, “SAWS needs revenue.”

Click for larger image. Map courtesy of Texas Water Development Board.

More than 15 percent of the water SAWS pumps from the Edwards Aquifer is lost or unaccounted for, said former SAWS conservation director Calvin Finch, who also criticized what he said were more lenient conservation measures contained in the unapproved draft of SAWS’ 2012 Water Management Plan. Finch said SAWS will need to do much education on the conservation front in order to swing public opinion in support of rate increases. SAWS’ own surveys and public hearings, he said, show the public does not yet support rate increases.

Finch, now the director of Texas A&M’s Water Conservation and Technology Center, also highlighted the importance of a balanced policy approach that encourages both conservation and expansion of supply.

“But we cannot simply build ourselves out of this problem,” said Andrew Sansom, executive director of the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University-San Marcos, pointing out that no amount of new water source development can replace the importance of water conservation.

The audience also learned that the SA2020 goal of reducing daily water use to 116 gallons per household per day is no longer considered realistic by SAWS in the context of the historic drought experienced in 2011, when per capita daily use rose to 143 gallons.  In addition, the 2010 U.S. census led SAWS to adjust its count of water users downward by more than 70,000. A more realistic figure, Puente said, would be 135 gallons per user per day.

San Antonio and the region also face growing challenges managing surface water.

“Land use and conservation are extremely connected,” said Suzanne Scott, general manager of the San Antonio River Authority. “Aquifer management is important, but we’ve also got to look basin-wide at estuaries (and the economies) we’re connected to.”

(From left) Robert Rivard, moderator; Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples; Clean Technology Forum Chairman Michael Burke; Andrew Sansom, executive director, The Meadows Center for Water and The Environment at TSU; City Councilman Reed Williams; SARA GM Suzanne Scott; Calvin Finch, director Texas A&M’s Water Conservation and Technology Institute; and Rep. Lyle Larson.

A broader, more progressive water management plan is needed to monitor our local and state-wide water resources, she said.

One idea that evoked approving nods from the panel is to consider statewide adoption of the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program to buy conservation easements on land within the aquifer recharge zone. SAWS oversees this program which is funded by a .08% sales tax and has been approved by voters three times (2000, 2005, 2010), all by comfortable margins.

The Edwards Aquifer Authority covers, 8,800 square miles spread over eight counties.
The Edwards Aquifer Authority covers, 8,800 square miles spread over eight counties.

A lot of discussion centered on the Texas legislature’s long-standing practice of issuing comprehensive water management plans for the state and then not funding the initiatives. Some experts believe it would now cost as much as $50 billion to address all its water issues, although Staples pointed out, “The state doesn’t have any ratepayers.” Staples praised farmers and ranchers for developing their own conservation measures over the last few decades that have greatly reduced rural pumping.   Forcing them to cut more, he warned, would endanger agricultural productivity.

Water in Texas is largely locally managed, with some state oversight, and nearly 100 underground conservation districts exist in Texas.  Each has its own geography and political standing. When pressed, Staples did not call on legislators to fund expensive new water projects out of the state treasury. Right now, there is very little state funding to support conservation efforts, inter-basin water transfers, or other comprehensive, statewide approaches to water management..

“Our water plan needs some teeth in it,” Sansom said, “Cause right now, it’s basically rhetoric.”

“It’s discussions like these that organizers hope will give our water policies those teeth,” said Michael Burke, Chairman and Founder of the San Antonio Clean Technology Forum.

By bringing state and local water policy makers together, the forum hopes “they can build on each other’s accomplishment and broaden the knowledge across the region by giving them a unified voice,” Burke said afterwards. “The San Antonio region is one that works particularly well together.”

Dr. Robert Gulley

A prime example of the collaborative work that the Forum hopes to encourage are projects like the Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Program. Dr. Robert Gulley, senior program manager at the Edwards Aquifer Authority.  Gulley received high praise and the 2012 Water For Life Award during the luncheon for his “tireless and unselfish work over the past five years” to strike an agreement with 40 regional water stakeholders for the Edwards Aquifer Recovery Habitat Conservation Plan. The agreement averted a possible intervention by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department to protect endangered species threatened by inadequate spring flows in New Braunfels and San Marcos.

The Forum plans to host future collaborative talks about water and land use issues that will include  Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio River Authority, SAWS, local and state representatives, academic researchers and other regional water players.

“We won’t accomplish everything over night, but this is a great start,” Burke said.

New to the Rivard Report and San Antonio, Iris Dimmick graduated from Central Washington University with a B.A. in journalism with an emphasis on online media and energy studies. Iris currently works as editor, reporter, photographer, and assistant web editor for the Rivard Report. You can follow her on Twitter @viviris

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org