Water feature at Hemisfair park. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Water feature at Hemisfair park. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

“I hope San Antonio is eternal. For it to be eternal, we have to be nature’s guardian.”

That was the substance of former Mayor Phil Hardberger’s message to me last year when I asked him how civic leaders should communicate the importance of our city’s water supply to our city’s economic vitality: the link between water security and job creation. Since then, I’ve been working with city staff and leaders from across the region to take the water issue from being simply a utility matter to what it needs to be: a primary strategic concern in our comprehensive growth plan. For San Antonio, water planning is an issue that, if managed well, can continue to deliver a significant economic and quality of life advantage for our city.

Our Strategic Advantage, Our Regional Challenge

The San Antonio area is the crossroads of the Americas. For more than a century, from iron rails to asphalt highways, our nation’s transportation infrastructure has converged on this very spot in South Texas. The confluence of commerce and culture that defines a 21st Century American City is also exemplified in San Antonio’s ethnic, economic, and political diversity. Yet San Antonio is at its own crossroads in history. Nearly 400 years ago, Canary Islanders settled in this basin because of its proximity to the fresh water provided by the San Antonio River and the Edwards Aquifer: an efficient, unfiltered, underground source of water that continues to supply the vast majority of this region’s water today.

Courtesy of Rocket Science Video and the Edwards Aquifer Authority
Photo courtesy of Rocket Science Video and the Edwards Aquifer Authority.

However, with this region’s reliance on the Edwards, inevitable population growth of area counties (an additional doubling of the population in the next three decades), and Texas law that treats ground water as the private property of the landowner (see “Rule of Capture”), the clock began ticking on San Antonio’s water security long ago.

A Comprehensive Plan for Water

I’m pleased that we are making progress. In February, I asked the City of San Antonio to conduct a study analyzing all of the policies and procedures, standards and regulations that impact water supply planning. Last month, City staff provided a briefing on the scope of work and timeline.  The City will be partnering with the Texas Water Resources Institute at Texas A&M University, the statewide authority on water research and water policy analysis, to examine the following concerns:

  • Historic and projected population growth and water demand.
  • Historic and projected costs for supplying and delivering water in the service area.
  • Summary of the governing bodies vested in San Antonio’s water supply and the authority delegated by each of those bodies.
  • City Code provisions and city planning strategies that impact projections for water demand, availability, and costs.
  • Summary risk assessment of existing and proposed water sources, including natural, developmental, and potential conflicting interest factors in the region, along with current mitigating activities.
  • Overview of next-step policy questions that City Council must consider in order to articulate a Comprehensive Growth Plan that includes available and affordable water through 2060.

Despite some initial criticism about the breadth of the request, I am confident that this is the only approach by which our city can firmly assert that water – as it was in centuries past – is a strategic advantage for this region, rather than a liability.

This is especially germane as we conclude a debate about SAWS Impact Fees, which are levied on new developments to finance additional capacity in our water system. It is clear that ensuring adequate and affordable water in the future is as much about how we grow – and manage growth – as it is about our water utility. The city’s economic vitality requires us to plan our city comprehensively and in accordance with our need and ability to pay for water in the future. This plan includes policy considerations about land use, development, infrastructure, irrigation, and cost-effective water supply management, all aligned in a properly executed plan for water.

San Antonio City Council members (from left) Shirley Gonzales, Rey Saldaña, Rebecca Viagran, Ivy Taylor, Diego Bernal, Mayor Julián Castro, and Mike Gallagher discuss SAWS' Impact Fee increase in Council chambers. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
San Antonio City Council members (from left) Shirley Gonzales, Rey Saldaña, Rebecca Viagran, Ivy Taylor, Diego Bernal, Mayor Julián Castro, and Mike Gallagher discuss SAWS’ Impact Fee increase in Council chambers. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Everyone’s Problem

The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas in December 2013 cited a report that water scarcity is the number one economic concern for the state of Texas.  In short, our ability to supply water in the future is the foundation upon which we will create jobs, attract business, and maintain a strong financial position that drives every service in the city.  In a world where half of the globe’s population is living in a state of real or economic water shortage, water security has also risen to the level of highest homeland security concerns.

The City has long recognized the strategic economic advantage provided by the Edwards Aquifer and has adopted a series of policies designed to protect it. The San Antonio City Council first adopted the concept of Recharge Zone protection in 1975, instituting by ordinance a zoning overlay for that portion of the aquifer. In 1987, the city council produced a document entitled “The Edwards Aquifer: Perspectives for Local and Regional Action,” endorsing a plan for non-degradation of the aquifer to protect ground water supplies within the city’s jurisdiction.

Bexar County watersheds. Image courtesy of SAWS.
Bexar County watersheds. Image courtesy of SAWS.

In 1994, the council adopted a more comprehensive approach, “The Edwards Aquifer: San Antonio Mandates for Water Quality Protection (33 Mandates),” which called for various actions in a regional watershed plan that considered federal, state, and local rules.

Growth Projections, Climate Realities

The region’s growth projections underscore the need to treat area water sources, particularly the Edwards, as an economic asset worth investing in and protecting. More than one million additional people are expected to be living in the metropolitan area by 2040. The growth we have experienced in the past decade, when more than 35 percent of all housing in Bexar County was built over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone, is expected to continue, a rate that was more than double the rest of the county.

Furthermore, nearly every climate model and every scientist suggest that the prolonged drought is the “new normal” in South Texas. Strong but intermittent rain events are simply not enough to provide for ample recharge upon which we have relied in this region for decades.

Utility Strategy: “All of the Above”

For these reasons, SAWS has undertaken an effort to diversify its supplies of water.  What was a high-risk, drought sensitive – but inexpensive – supply portfolio based solely on the Edwards Aquifer, now includes water from Canyon Lake, the Trinity and Carrizo Aquifers, and expanded recycled water use. In addition, water pumped from the Edwards, which is regulated by the Edwards Aquifer Authority in accordance with the Clean Water Act, is stored in the utility’s underground Aquifer Storage and Recovery facility during periods of heavy recharge. SAWS also is constructing the first three phases of the Brackish Water Desalinization Plant at the same site in southern Bexar County, and utility officials  are in discussions to pipe in additional water from outside the region.

A diverse supply of water for the long-term is critical to mitigating the risk of shortage due to drought, population growth, or contamination of the Edwards. However, diversification is also expensive.  For example, according to SAWS, an acre-foot of water – enough to supply water to three households for a year – costs roughly $300 from the Edwards, $600 from the Carrizo, and an estimated $1500 to $2000 from basin transfer and desalinization. That cost falls onto residents on their SAWS utility bills, so it is critical that we are as efficient as possible using the water we have and making investments in the water we need for the future.

Costs of diversification and the fact that Texas’ population is expected to grow at a pace that exceeds the state’s collective ability to supply water, means that conservation will continue to be a central and vital strategy in our pursuit of long-term water security.

Regional Responsibility

Legal constraints add an additional challenge. At a recent panel discussion at the San Antonio Book Festival, respected author Char Miller put it succinctly, “Water does not respect political boundaries.”  That is, with diminishing supplies of groundwater that many communities share throughout the region, we must all do our part to act responsibly: continue to conserve where possible and build future reserves that do not compromise others’ ability to do the same.

Edwards Aquifer Flowpath. Map courtesy of the Edwards Aquifer Authority.
Edwards Aquifer Flowpath. Map courtesy of the Edwards Aquifer Authority.

In fact, as the largest consumer of Edwards Aquifer water (SAWS controls more than half of all pumping rights currently), our city has made remarkable advances in the conservation of water through drought management and recycled/reuse water. As water demand has dropped from an estimated 160 gallons per capita per day (GCPD) in 1993 to 124 GCPD in 2013, we have been able to stretch the life of our supplies amid the prolonged drought while keeping water rates affordable (SAWS officials are fond of saying that “the cheapest water is the water we don’t use,” and they are right). That makes good sense for ratepayers, and it makes good sense in the South Texas climate.

The Preeminence of the Edwards Aquifer

Finally, despite our efforts to diversify, build reserves, and conserve, one fact remains: we will always be dependent on the Edwards Aquifer for the majority of our water. According to a recent study, the Edwards will still account for 67 percent of our water supply in 2060 even if we move aggressively with diversification and conservation. Today, it accounts for roughly 90 percent of our water. The Edwards will continue to be backbone of our water supply and the reason why it is imperative that long-term solutions for water supply be considered in conjunction with our comprehensive growth strategies as a city.

This is why I also believe that the most responsible and cost-effective strategy to secure our future water supply is to continue the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program.  Since 2000, San Antonio residents have voted three times to purchase conservation easements over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone. The 1/8 cent sales tax initiative, which was renewed last in 2010, has since protected 123,000 acres of critical land. According to a sustainability study commissioned by the City, that is the equivalent of 36 billion gallons of water annually or 51 percent of our annual water supply needs from the Edwards in the year 2060. If we continue our efforts, we will protect 100 percent of our 2060 water needs from the Edwards by 2030.  The program’s revenue runs out in 2015, so in order to continue the success, City Council must put it back on the ballot for voters to approve.

The path to a secure water future – and thus, our economic prosperity – was largely written when this area was first settled over the Edwards Aquifer centuries ago. Sound planning will be necessary to ensure clean and abundant water for generations to come and to maintain the aquifer as a primary strategic economic and environmental asset.

The City must lead the effort to ensure long-term water security through its comprehensive plan for growth. SAWS must continue its leadership in conserving water, building reserves, and managing risk by diversifying the water supply. And we should renew the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program in 2015.

We can’t afford not to.

*Featured/top image: Photo courtesy of Rocket Science Video and the Edwards Aquifer Authority.

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Ron Nirenberg is the mayor of San Antonio.