As the San Antonio Water System dips its toe into selling water further outside its service territory, big questions are emerging about the municipal utility becoming more of a regional water purveyor.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Kendall County, where SAWS last year signed an agreement to provide water to developers of a 375-acre property less than a mile south of Boerne city limits.

According to SAWS, water for that project would come from Canyon Lake. But a pair of bills pending in the Texas Legislature would allow SAWS to sell water from the Edwards Aquifer across the Bexar-Kendall line, something state law currently does not permit.

For all of San Antonio’s 300-year history, the Edwards Aquifer has been the city’s most important water source. Even today, with SAWS tapping every major lake, river, and aquifer in the region, the Edwards still makes up the majority of San Antonio’s water supply.

Ever since the aquifer battles of the 1990s, pumping of the vast limestone rock layer has been regulated by the Edwards Aquifer Authority. Its territory covers Uvalde, Medina, and Bexar counties and parts of Atascosa, Caldwell, Comal, Guadalupe, and Hays counties.

Among the rules governing the aquifer is one that prohibits moving Edwards water outside of this area. That could change as the result of the two bills – SB 1170, sponsored by State Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels), and HB 1806, sponsored by State Rep. Tracy O. King (D-Uvalde).

For SAWS, the change would allow them to provide a critical backup water supply for the development, known as Boerne West. The water supply contract also involved developers adopting some of San Antonio’s environmental ordinances covering water conservation, light pollution, tree preservation, and others. All are stronger requirements than they would be subject to in an unincorporated part of Kendall County.

“The ability to sell Edwards water actually gives us the ability to further protect the Edwards Aquifer by requiring developers to follow stricter development rules that we would impose,” SAWS board Chair Heriberto “Berto” Guerra Jr. said at SAWS’ April board of trustees meeting Tuesday.

But some are questioning what this means for the fast-growing areas on the northern fringes of San Antonio.

Access to water has in some cases been a check on rapid development in these areas. Rivers and aquifers of the Hill Country are sensitive to drought and have not typically been able to support the kind of dense development happening on San Antonio’s outer edges.

“The concern that I hear is if you let this one come in and bring its own water, what’s going to stop the next one from coming in and bringing its own water, and all of a sudden we have a lot more development coming in than we already do,” said Kendall County Commissioner Christina Bergmann (Pct. 1), whose precinct includes the Boerne West development.

Limiting the availability to supply water can limit the density of development, said Annalisa Peace, director of the nonprofit Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance.

“It’s one of the very few tools that these communities have that they can use.”

Legislation offers flexibility

For now, SAWS officials don’t seem interested in exporting much Edwards Aquifer water – the cheapest of all water sources the utility can tap. Donovan Burton, SAWS vice president of governmental relations and water resources, said the push to change the law is about “finding limited, beneficial, win-win partnerships.”

“We are not in the business of selling off a bunch of Edwards Aquifer water,” Burton said. “That is not what this bill is about. That’s not what we would do, and frankly it just doesn’t make a lot of practical sense for us to want to do that.”

But as SAWS trustee Amy Hardberger put it, what seems impossible today might seem like a great idea in the not-so-distant future.

“The one thing we do know about the water market is that it changes,” Hardberger said at the board meeting. “Things that don’t look commercially viable in as short as five years can suddenly seem like a great idea.”

To ease concerns, SAWS is seeking an amendment to limit this kind of export of Edwards Aquifer water to 1.9 billion gallons per year, a change that Campbell supports.

King, whose bill has made it out of committee, did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

In an emailed statement, Campbell said that by giving SAWS more flexibility to deliver Edwards water, “we will be able to conserve and manage our natural resources more efficiently.”

“Kendall County is growing rapidly, and that requires long-term planning,” Campbell said. “These bills protect the precious Trinity Aquifer and the existing wells of Kendall County residents while lowering the costs of piping water from over-tapped or unreliable supplies into the region.”

SAWS is allocating water service for a neighborhood development in Kendall County near Boerne Texas.
SAWS is allocating water service for a neighborhood development in Kendall County near Boerne. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Vista Ridge heralds change

Issues like these are probably why SAWS officials said last year that they want more public input on whether San Antonio should start selling more water. Next year, after its Vista Ridge pipeline comes online, SAWS will have more water supplies than it has ever had.

In April 2020, the more than 140-mile pipeline will begin delivering 16.3 billion gallons of water per year from aquifers below Burleson and Milam counties, east of Austin.

Vista Ridge water will be San Antonio’s second-most expensive source at roughly $2,000 per acre-foot, according to SAWS’ 2017 water management plan. Those payments are expect to amount to a little more than $100 million per year, SAWS Chief Financial Officer Doug Evanson said at the meeting.

By contrast, Edwards Aquifer water is SAWS’ cheapest supply, costing the utility between $241 and $704 per acre-foot, depending on drought cutbacks and whether water rights are purchased or leased.

SAWS officials have always been clear that they plan to sell a portion of that Vista Ridge water to offset the pipeline’s cost to SAWS customers. So when word got out it was seeking legislation that would let it sell more Edwards water, it raised alarms among some SAWS watchdogs.

“One of the arguments we used to talk against Vista Ridge was that it was really an attempt to make water so plentiful that it could be wasted,” said Alan Montemayor, a member of the Alamo Group of the Sierra Club who’s a frequent speaker at SAWS public comment periods. “Since you’ve been trying to sell Vista Ridge water at high cost, you want to sell Edwards water at a lower cost.”

Burton said that’s not the case.

“Regardless of the source, the price will be the same,” he said. “The City Council will ultimately set the price. … We are not trying to price cheaper water so we could sell it and profit or anything like that.”

Vista Ridge supporters have said that even though it will be years before San Antonio truly needs the full 16.3 billion gallons the pipeline will supply, it makes sense for San Antonio to buy tomorrow’s water at today’s prices. After 30 years of water payments, SAWS will own the pipeline by 2050.

“We’re bringing in Vista Ridge for our children and our grandchildren, which has been our goal for this board and this City Council,” Guerra said.

That leaves the question of what to do for now with the excess water. At the SAWS meeting, Mayor Ron Nirenberg, a board member in his official capacity, called the issue “a byproduct of the fact that we have a rapidly urbanizing state that has really no modern water laws.”

“For a utility like SAWS, we’re having to plan for the future, which leaves us in some near-term paradoxes,” Nirenberg continued. “We have to secure long-term water supply through diversification of our portfolio, that includes regional sourcing. But we also don’t necessarily need all that water in the near term, so what do we do with it?”

That’s a debate that San Antonio has yet to have, Peace said.

“If the citizens and through their elected officials, say, … ‘Yeah, let’s go ahead and be a regional water supplier,’ that’s one thing,” Peace said. “But we’ve never had that discussion.”

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is the San Antonio Report's environment and energy reporter.