The San Antonio Water System (SAWS) board on Tuesday unanimously approved an updated water management plan that emphasizes further diversification of the city’s water supply and the public utility’s water conservation initiatives.

While praising the plan as a whole, SAWS Board Chairman Heriberto “Berto” Guerra and Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the utility must better educate the public about conservation and the new water rate structure.

However, the new management plan gives SAWS customers a full look at a future filled with numerous water supply, storage, and conservation objectives and measures, Guerra said.

“I am thrilled that this plan, unlike previous plans, offers the most promising path forward to securing our water future,” he said. “This community has waited for decades for this moment.”

The management plan, last updated in 2012, now fully reflects three projects – the Vista Ridge pipeline project, brackish groundwater desalination, and an expanded Carrizo Aquifer system.

Construction is underway on the Vista Ridge pipeline, which is slated to deliver up to 50,000 acre-feet of groundwater from Burleson County every year throughout a multi-decade contract, starting in 2020.

In 2020, customers can expect to see a 12.9% rate increase to help fund the initial delivery of Vista Ridge water. SAWS plans to seek City Council’s approval for another rate hike in 2018 to support ongoing improvements to its sewers and drinking water infrastructure.

Thanks to a desalination plant in southern Bexar County, the water utility projects producing an additional 20,000 acre-feet of water annually by the 2050s. By that same time, the Carrizo project, the largest non-Edwards Aquifer groundwater supply, is due to yield another 21,000 acre-feet of water every year.

Garney Construction workers set pipes in place for SAWS' Carrizo Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) project in 2002. Photo courtesy of Garney Construction
Garney Construction workers set pipes in place for SAWS’ Carrizo Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) project in 2002. Credit: Courtesy / Garney Construction

The new management plan contains goals for long-term water conservation. Local water consumption per person has decreased from 225 gallons per capita per day in 1982 to 117 in 2016, resulting in 3.2 million acre-feet of cumulative savings, according to SAWS.

The per capita figures cover both commercial and residential SAWS customers. The utility expects continued conservation measures to further decrease the per capita use to 88 by 2070, even with an additional 1.5 million people expected to move to Bexar County in the next 50-plus years.

The management plan also highlights SAWS’ H2Oaks Center, the largest Aquifer Storage and Recovery facility in the nation. The utility has stored more than 143,000 acre-feet, available for use in offsetting Edwards Aquifer cutbacks. SAWS plans for a total storage volume of 200,000 acre-feet.

Though the water management plan promotes conservation and a rising number of supplies, area environmentalists remain critical of the document, saying SAWS should focus more on conservation and less on large-scale projects, such as Vista Ridge.

Meredith McGuire, a Trinity University professor and Alamo Sierra Club member, said  the new supply projects will require more energy in order to provide SAWS customers with additional water. This will lead to more greenhouse gas emissions, she added.

“This water management plan greatly impedes San Antonio’s progress toward real sustainability and effective climate action,” McGuire said. “SAWS’ projections have misled the SA Tomorrow planning process, leading to unambitious goals in gallons per person per day usage.”

McGuire also said SAWS has turned into a water purveyor that cares more about sales revenues than about conservation.

Linda Curtis, director of the political action committee Independent Texans, spoke of a recent conflict between Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District and Vista Ridge stakeholders. The conflict pertained to whether the number of years on a specific water transfer permit could be extended.

Gov. Greg Abbott earlier this summer vetoed House Bill 2378, which would have mandated that transfer permits issued by groundwater conservation districts be extended indefinitely.

Nirenberg would like to see SAWS resolve the Post Oak Savannah transfer conflict quickly and in a way that proves the utility is a good neighbor to other Vista Ridge participants.

Curtis said the Vista Ridge deal remains unfair to San Antonio ratepayers and to water purveyors and consumers in the Burleson County area.

“I’m here to ask you all to find a way for us to be good neighbors across the region and to get out of this contract,” she added.

Protestors walk under a makeshift pipeline for demonstrating purposes. Photo by Scott Ball.
Protestors walk under a piñata pipeline during a Vista Ridge water pipeline protest at City Hall on Nov. 10, 2015. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Lauren Ice, staff attorney for the Save Our Springs Alliance, said the San Antonio utility has not done enough to inform the public of ongoing and future rate hikes, and how changes in the Vista Ridge contract will affect such rate increases and operational costs.

“We as a community deserve an open, honest conversation about what those changes might be and what the risks could be to taxpayers,” she added.

Stephanie Reyes, vice president of public affairs for the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber supports the new water management plan.

“We believe the proposed water management plan continues to build on the successes to date, and helps to reach admirable community goals of visionary planning, water conservation, diversifying our water supply, and wise investments in necessary infrastructure,” Reyes added.

Donovan Burton, the utility’s vice president of governmental relations and water resources, said SAWS understands the public’s concern regarding conservation, but that a focus on water-saving measures cannot be the key to providing water to a growing city.

“This is a water management plan, not a water supply plan,” he said. “We can’t do it only with conservation, and we can’t do it only with supply. We’ve got to do both.”

The utility will keep using a dual approach, Burton said, namely diversifying supplies and promoting conservation, to keep pace with a growing population’s increasing demands and to stave off any future supply-demand gaps in projected drought years.

The utility also plans to transition to an automatic meter reading system, Burton said, to help reduce operational expenses and improve ratepayer billing accuracy.

SAWS officials estimate that new system’s full rollout will take about five years and cost around $100 million. This, along with enhanced continued communications with the public, will help ratepayers better understand both the new rate structure and the significance of water conservation, Burton said.

“Conservation is a mindset out in the community,” he said. “I think some of that comes from our outreach.”

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Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.