Residents worried about how San Antonio Water System’s (SAWS) rate structure plan might impact lower-income users had plenty to say during a SAWS Community Conservation Committee (CCC) meeting on Wednesday.
About 40 residents attended the afternoon meeting at SAWS headquarters. More than a dozen criticized the new water rate structure, the study backing it, and SAWS’ long-term water supply project, Vista Ridge.
If the SAWS Board of Trustees and City Council were to approve it, the new structure would raise the number of pricing tiers for residential customers and widen the pricing difference for low-and high-use commercial customers. The utility’s Rate Advisory Committee (RAC) unanimously approved the plan in May.
Critics of the new tiers say the change will disproportionately effect low-income customers that may not be aware or able to take advantage of SAWS’ Affordability Discount or money-saving coupons, among other assistance tools. Several speakers focused on lower-income Westside neighborhoods where a high number of households, with aging plumbing, shelter multiple family members who live together mainly because of financial reasons.
In the present four-tier system, the first 5,985 gallons for residential customers are priced at $0.23 per 100 gallons; the price rises over the next three tiers.
The new structure would set a new first tier price, $0.13, at 2,992 gallons and create eight tiers or “blocks.” Residential users in the first, or lowest, three blocks would be charged with what SAWS calls a “weighted average” of $0.20 per 100 gallons up to 6,000 gallons. SAWS Vice President of Business Planning and Controller Mary Bailey said this amount is the average usage rate between the lowest and second-lowest 3,000-gallon customers.
Customers using less than 2,992 gallons would get a discounted availability charge, the minimum amount that SAWS charges for fixed costs. SAWS calls the new 2,992-gallon figure a “lifeline rate,” a basic amount of water needed for two people to survive in an average home. According to Bailey’s presentation on the new structure on Wednesday, a household using 2,992 gallons or lower for water and sewer currently sees an average bill of $33.37; that household could get an average bill of $28.56 under the new structure.
Commercial users start at a rate based upon the previous year’s monthly average use and would keep doing so under the new rates. The difference here is that users would be charged more beginning in Block 3 (see graph below).
But residents unhappy about the plan say it’s unrealistic for SAWS to think those lower-income, highly populated households can stay under the so-called lifeline rate. Critics add that SAWS’ existing discounts and other low-income aids only do so much.
Maria Turvin said if SAWS aims to promote more conservation with the new tiers – a driving force of this plan – then commercial users will not be affected as much as residential customers, nor will high-end users be incentivized to cut back usage. With help from a Spanish interpreter, homeowner Sandra Duarte said she and her Westside neighbors cannot afford what they feel are imminent rate hikes now or in the future.
Jesse R. Vidales said struggling ratepayers are being “targeted to foot the bill” for the 142-mile-long pipeline that the Vista Ridge consortium plans to design and build to pump water from Burleson and Milam counties to the San Antonio area. Vidales added he knows of neighboring households, with five or six inhabitants, where water is shut off because they cannot afford to pay their current bills.
“My neighborhood consists of people on limited incomes,” Anne Wyatt said, speaking of her Southwest Side community. She called the Vista Ridge project something that only boosts “big businesses in San Antonio and their dreams, and all the oil and gas fracking happening between here and Burleson County.”
Gianna Rendon, a community organizer with the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, one of the groups represented at the CCC meeting, said she felt SAWS did not adequately publicize Wednesday’s gathering and that the session could have been held in the early evening when even more residents could attend. Rendon also urged SAWS to raise public awareness of its conservation and assistance programs, and to hold more community meetings citywide about the new rate plan.
Bailey reiterated key points in the new rate tiers and the study that supports them. She said the structure will not generate new revenue for SAWS, and that this year’s rates will remain the same until Jan. 1, 2016.
“All we’re doing here is moving chairs around,” Bailey said, describing the new system. She added with the rising cost of water, the new rate structure serves to encourage greater conservation across the board, particularly among high-end users.
“This would send the right pricing signal to those customers,” she said. Bailey insisted lowest-use residential customers would see their rates stay the same or go down under the new structure, and that the new structure would not impact them disproportionately. She added that big water users, especially those with outdoor irrigation, will be charged at a premium.
“We send out about 4 million bills a year and 27% of them never get above 3,000 gallons,” Bailey said of residential users under the new plan. According to Bailey’s presentation, 56% of SAWS water usage belongs to residents and that figure will also reflect the cost of service in the new rate structure.
“I don’t know why people say residential customers are picking up a bigger share of rates. They’re picking up the exact share of water at the same cost of service,” she added. Toward the meeting’s end, Bailey urged departing visitors to pick up information about the low-income assistance services that SAWS offers to low-income customers. SAWS officials added they will are open to publicly meeting with organizations around town about the new system.
Many of the same critics say the $3.4 billion Vista Ridge pipeline project, designed to provide up to 50,000 acre-feet of water annually for 30 years by 2020, will only increase urban sprawl and benefit a growing city looking to lure more big business to town.
A group of protesters involving representatives of Esperanza, Southwest Workers Union and the Texas Organizing Project arrived outside with hand-drawn signs in tow and peered into the meeting room. Later, Meredith McGuire, professor emerita at Trinity University and local Sierra Club spokesperson, took part in a news conference on the SAWS campus. She said during the construction of the Vista Ridge pipeline and afterward, rates will increase each year and take a toll on the most vulnerable of customers.
“We call on the City Council to talk to your constituents about this rate structure. The rate increases that will be built on this rate structure are a matter of social policy. SAWS should not be making social policy, especially about anything so essential for life and health as water,” McGuire said.
CCC Chairman Gabriel Durand-Hollis, a local architect and mayor of Hill Country Village, later agreed with SAWS officials about lower rates for lower-use customers.
“This structure really draws the line at 6,000 gallons. Businesses and other commercial customers use more, and they’d pay more. This helps to send a message to conserve more water,” said Durand-Hollis.
After the new rate structure has been vetted by stakeholders, the SAWS Board of Trustees, then City Council, will take up the recommendations later this summer and into the fall.
Durand-Hollis said SAWS has re-emphasized conservation in different ways over the last few years during the region’s most recent drought period. He added that, despite what critics say, Wednesday’s meeting helped to shed more light on the ways residents can be more water-wise.
“You can even have SAWS do an audit at your home, to see where you’re losing water,” he added. As for criticism about Vista Ridge, Durand-Hollis said his committee was in no position to comment about it because it was not an official topic at the meeting.
“(Vista Ridge) didn’t play into today’s agenda,” he added.
*Featured/top image: People from local organizations, guided by the Texas Organizing Project, protest SAWS’ proposed rate structure. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.