Weir Labatt

(First of a two-part series)

“Water Forum III: Our Water, Our Future,” presented by the San Antonio Clean Technology Forum  on October 10, provided an excellent insight into the complex and difficult water issues facing San Antonio and the Edwards Aquifer region.  The San Antonio Clean Technology Forum, founded and chaired by Michael Burke, is to be congratulated for a job well done. Robert Rivard served as moderator and did an outstanding job.

I have been asked, as “Old Man Water,” and as someone who has been involved in the city and region’s water planning for three decades, to elaborate and comment on the keynote remarks made by Mayor Julián Castro and the dialogue afterwards among the seven state and local panelists who followed the mayor on stage.

From left: Michael Burke, Director of SA Clean Technology Forum; Dr. Robert Gulley, senior program manager at the Edwards Aquifer Authority and 2012 Water for Life Award recipient; and Weir Labatt, aka “Old Man Water.” Photo courtesy of Michael Burke.

It was my personal pleasure and honor to present the Forum’s first-ever 2012 Water for Life Award to Dr. Robert Gulley.  For the past four years, Dr. Gulley served as the Program Director of the Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Program (EARIP), which was mandated to devise a Habitat Conservation Plan to protect the endangered species located at Comal and San Marcos Springs. This required patient, long-term consensus building among dozens of individuals and urban and rural water management entities, many of whom have regarded their neighbors with historical suspicion over the years. It was an extraordinary effort by Dr. Gulley, one that many doubted was possible to accomplish. In the end, his work and the regional agreement safeguarded critical spring flows and prevented intervention by the federal government operating under the authority granted by the Endangered Species Act. It simply would not have happened without the strong leadership and guidance of Dr. Gulley.

Mayor Julián Castro.

Mayor Castro made some very appropriate and astute remarks.  He talked about the need for a two-pronged approach to supplying water for future needs.  The city and region must continue to conserve water.  A strong conservation ethic is the most cost effect way to take care of future water demands. He went on to say that conservation alone will not solve the problem and that SAWS must secure additional non-Edwards Aquifer supplies.  The new SAWS 2012 Water Development Plan (still to be approved by the SAWS Board) reflects up to a 70,000 acre foot shortfall in a recurring drought of record.  Without additional non-Edwards sources of supply, the City of San Antonio and the region are at risk.

Mayor Castro acknowledged that a water rate increase will be necessary to purchase this additional non-Edwards supply.  He wisely said that this rate increase must be thoroughly discussed and understood by the community.   The citizens of San Antonio and the City Council must be told all details about the proposed project, how it will be financed, and how it will affect each SAWS ratepayer.  A good and transparent process is critical to the acceptance of any proposed water supply project.

Water Management Plans Draft
Click to download the full 47-page draft.

But I have a strong feeling of urgency.  SAWS has known since 1993 that they could no longer depend solely on Edwards Aquifer water as its sole source of supply.  To date, almost 20 years later, the Edwards Aquifer still supplies approximately 85% of the supply.  (As a side note, SAWS recently sent a notice to all ratepayers reflecting that the Edwards Aquifer is only 46% of their supply.  This is very misleading.)

After lengthy and costly missteps with the Guadalupe Blanco River Authority (GBRA) and the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), SAWS requested competitive sealed proposals regarding the provision and delivery of alternative water supplies in January 2011.  SAWS staff has selected four of these proposals for final consideration.  To date, almost two years later, negotiations have not begun with the four finalists.

The availability of water is becoming more important than the cost.  The longer SAWS waits to negotiate and finalize a contract for additional non-Edwards water, the less likely it will be available. Other communities in the region are also looking for additional sources of water.  Availability becomes a criteria even more than important than cost.  If the water is not available, cost is irrelevant.

water supply gap
From the DRAFT 2012 Water Management Plan.

It is my understanding that a negotiated contract will not be submitted to the SAWS board until after the May 2013 City Council elections and possibly as late as the fall of 2013. This delay is inexcusable and should be expedited. If my understanding is correct, it is obvious that SAWS does not share my sense of urgency.

As stated earlier, Mayor Castro made some very appropriate remarks at Water Forum III. It is very important that these words be turned into action. There is an expression in Spanish that goes like this: “Muchas palabras, pero no hay negocio.” Paraphrased in English it means, “Many words, but there is no business (deal).” I hope this is not the case. In my opinion, the future of San Antonio and the Edwards region needs a sense of alacrity.

Weir Labatt, a former member of the City of San Antonio City Council, the Edwards Aquifer Authority, the Texas Water Development Board, and Chairman of the Western States Water Council has been involved in the water debate for the past 25 years.  He recently served on the Steering Committee of the Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Program (EARIP).