A request to pump more water from the aquifers that will serve the San Antonio Water System’s Vista Ridge pipeline has reignited some opposition to the project, even with the pipeline almost complete. 

The flare-up over Vista Ridge came as SAWS and the companies building the pipeline head into the final stretches of construction before water testing begins next year. The more than 140-mile pipeline will be capable of delivering up to 16.3 billion gallons per year of water pumped from aquifers below Burleson and Milam counties east of Austin.

At SAWS’ October board meeting Tuesday, SAWS Chief Financial Officer Doug Evanson said he had heard from the private companies building the pipeline that it is “substantially complete.” 

“I had a meeting with them the other day, and they said they had installed the last stick of pipe,” Evanson said. 

Also on Tuesday, a small group of protesters from groups across the political spectrum laid out problems they see with the pipeline and SAWS’ increasing role as a regional water supplier, especially with the upcoming completion of Vista Ridge, its largest water supply from outside the San Antonio area. 

“SAWS admits we do not need and cannot use that amount of water, so why are we making San Antonians pay for this water that’s not going to be needed for the next 20 years?” said Reinette King, a former City Council candidate who also served as a spokeswoman for last year’s charter amendments proposed by the firefighters’ union. “There’s a metroplex agenda at the City of San Antonio to build out up toward Austin. That’s going to cost a lot of money.”

Vista Ridge has faced stiff opposition in the past, with protesters in 2015 shutting down City Hall for a short time over votes to raise SAWS customers’ rates. City Council approved the rate hikes that year, including a nearly 10 percent rate increase that will likely take effect in 2020. 

What’s reignited the opposition recently is a request to allow more water to be pumped from the Simsboro aquifer below Burleson and Milam counties. The Vista Ridge contract requires SAWS to buy as much water as the pipeline can deliver, up to 50,000 acre-feet per year. An acre-foot is 325,851 gallons.

In July, lawyers for the water suppliers submitted an application to the Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District to increase groundwater pumping by 4,842 acre-feet per year from 35,993 to 50,993 acre-feet per year. 

The request to modify the permit came indirectly from Blue Water, an Austin-based company selling the water that will be drawn from thousands of water production leases in Post Oak Savannah’s territory.

A map of groundwater leases in Burleson and Milam counties that will supply the Vista Ridge pipeline. The shapes labeled PW-12 through PW-18 represent water wells.
A map of groundwater leases in Burleson and Milam counties that will supply the Vista Ridge pipeline. The shapes labeled PW-12 through PW-18 represent water wells.

A lawyer for Blue Water did not immediately respond Tuesday to a phone message seeking comment. Post Oak Savannah is holding a public hearing on the issue at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at its offices at 310 E. Ave. C in the the Milam County town of Milano.

“Our understanding is that these are simply technical measures being taken … to ensure project success by increasing well field backup measures and restoring original flow allowances,” Gavino Ramos, SAWS’ vice president of communications, said in an email. “Nothing in the Vista Ridge contract has changed the deal that would alter the amount of water coming to San Antonio.”

James Murphy, a water lawyer and former Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority official representing landowners fighting the pipeline, said the request “isn’t about providing water.”  

“This is about providing money to the investors and financiers behind this project,” Murphy told reporters outside SAWS headquarters. 

Murphy pointed out how SAWS officials have repeatedly said that in the short term, San Antonio will only need 35,000 acre-feet of that water. Since 2016, SAWS has been trying to sell the other 15,000 acre-feet to rapidly growing communities along the Interstate 35 corridor. 

And because the Vista Ridge contract only requires SAWS to pay for the water that actually shows up in the pipeline, if “they can only deliver 40,000 acre-feet to SAWS, then that’s all good,” Murphy said.

“That means the ratepayers only have to pay for 5,000 acre-feet they can’t use,” he continued. “And yet, the landowners and people who live in Lee, Milam, Burleson, and Bastrop counties are the ones that are fighting this, because they’re concerned about the environment or their economic future.” 

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.