Stage III water restrictions allow irrigation watering only once every two weeks. Photo courtesy of SAWS.
Stage Three water restrictions allow irrigation watering only once every two weeks. Credit: Courtesy / SAWS

While San Antonio’s public utility updates its water management plan that outlines strategies and goals for the next 50 years, it’s clear that officials don’t think a once-a-week watering proposal should be part of it.

An independent consultant firm hired by San Antonio Water System re-affirmed that such restrictions would not significantly impact water savings for customers or the utility and would require higher rate increases over time.

SAWS performed a similar analysis last year and came to the same conclusion, but some elected officials wanted further review before shelving the idea.

Freese and Nichols carried out the study that concluded once-a-week watering restrictions would only reduce water consumption by 1.25%, based on 2006-2016 data. That slight reduction of water use would result in 1.4% higher water rates in order for SAWS to make up for the lost revenue, hydrologist Jeremy Rice told the Council’s Transportation, Technology, and Utilities Committee on Wednesday.

“It is not something that helps our financial situation and it’s not something that helps our inventory,” SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente said. “[The Stage One restriction] is really a tool that we should use and we do use it when it’s needed, and oftentimes it’s not needed.”

Stage One watering restrictions call for landscape watering only on a designated time and day. Currently, Year Round rules allow for, among other things, landscape watering any day of the week before 11 a.m. or after 7 p.m.

Under Stage Two restrictions, only certain addresses can water on certain days between 7-11 a.m. and 7-11 p.m. This has been implemented only a few times since City Council adopted a conservation ordinance in 2014, which automatically triggers restrictions based on the level of the Edwards Aquifer.

When a restriction is imposed, use goes down and the aquifer recharges. Then, when a restriction is lifted, people start using more water and the aquifer level lowers – which can trigger another restriction. SAWS officials call this back and forth the “yo-yo” effect and it’s what sparked the idea to simplify year-round water use to Stage One.

Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) proposed the idea in 2015. He was unable to attend the committee meeting on Wednesday, during which no action was taken on the issue.

Beyond avoiding the “yo-yo” effect, Nirenberg argues that a year-round, once-a-week watering policy would further cultivate a “culture of conservation” in San Antonio.

“As a public utility, the mission is not simply to sell water to meet the market’s demand, it is to ensure this essential resource is available and affordable to residents and businesses in the future,” Nirenberg stated in his official comments read by City staff at the meeting. “We must be stewards of our water supply.”

Councilman Joe Krier (D9) has been skeptical of the once-a-week idea from the start, but on Wednesday he called it a “feel-good proposal” that doesn’t achieve significant cost or water savings.

It may at least start to change citizens’ attitudes and “recalibrate their sense of how often they consider watering their lawns,” Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) said.

But if once-a-week watering doesn’t produce tangible results, “what will?” Saldaña asked Puente.

That’s where SAWS conservation efforts and the Water Management Plan comes in.

Under Construction: 2017 Water Management Plan

Updated every five years, the plan outlines conservation goals as well as short term, mid term, and long term water supply needs.

The plan is based on four guiding principles:

  1. Identify innovative conservation strategies to reduce per person consumption by 30% between 2017 and 2070. That would put per person consumption at 88 gallons of water per day in 2070.
  2. Continue to invest in new water projects in order to further diversify water supply and reduce reliance on the Edwards Aquifer. The controversial, $3.4 billion Vista Ridge water pipeline will bring in 50,000 acre-feet of water annually for at least 30 years from Burleson County east of Austin starting in 2020. It will be the largest source of non-Edwards Aquifer water in the City’s history.
  3. Continue to identify water projects that can be shared with regional communities.
  4. Utilizing innovative water technology and programs to further maximize current water supplies. (Such as recycled water, aquifer storage and recovery, and smart meters.)

SAWS’ task force, charged with reviewing the 2012 plan and changing environmental, population, and regulatory dynamics, has concluded its deliberation and the SAWS board has been briefed on the process. A draft of the 2017 plan is expected to be complete in early May and the public will have about one month to review it before it goes before the board for a vote on June 6. City Council will be briefed on the plan on June 14.

Before a draft is complete, SAWS will continue its public outreach efforts and is encouraging public comments through its initiative and website www.watercitysa.com. Email questions or comments to WMP-input@saws.org.

Credit: Courtesy / SAWS

But some environmental activists have already come up with an “alternative” water management plan.

A handful of members of the Alamo Sierra Club gathered in front of SAWS headquarters Thursday morning to protest the utility’s plan and propose one with a more aggressive water conservation and catchment strategies and far fewer water supply projects.

Alamo Sierra Club Conservation Committee Co-Chair Meredith McGuire said projects like Vista Ridge only serve to attract more residents and companies to San Antonio.

“They’re not preparing our city for drought, they’re preparing our city for more water users,” McGuire said, which shouldn’t be the goal of the public utility. Advertising the city as “waterful” only fuels unsustainable growth.

More information about the “true and sustainable” water plan will soon be available on Alamo Sierra Club’s website.

The local group’s plan points to the city of Melbourne’s extensive water catchment system and calls for San Antonio to use local water, require low impact development practices for all new buildings, and use “green infrastructure.”

Much like CPS Energy is encouraging distributed generation across the city, said Conservation Committee member Alan Montemayor, SAWS should be encouraging distributed water catchment.

Such approaches, SAWS officials have said, are certainly being implemented and/or considered as part of conservation planning but won’t satisfy the city’s long-term water supply needs.

San Antonio is considered a leader in water conservation, Puente said Wednesday, and has consistently reduced per person water consumption since 1982 when the per capita was 220 gallons per day. In 2015, per capita use was below at 130 gallons per day.

Iris Dimmick

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