San Antonio Water System (SAWS) President and CEO Robert Puente gave City Council an overview of the public utility’s plan to change the way it charges residential and commercial customers for water. The proposed rate restructure would reward those that use less water with lower rates and send a price signal to customers that use more.

City Council lauded SAWS and its Rate Advisory Committee, which spent more than a year working with consultants to come up with what they said was an equitable structure. None of the City Council members expressed objections to the new structure during Wednesday’s meeting.

Find out more about the rate structure proposal here.

Councilmember Shirley Gonzales (D5) said she was hoping to see the results of a water policy study commissioned by the City before voting on the change on Oct. 29.

“I’d like to see it before we vote,” she said. “There’s a lot of people in the community that are questioning the process and questioning the rate structure. Even though we did go through a very extensive vetting process through the Rate Advisory Committee … we just need confirmation.”

City Manager Sheryl Sculley said a report outlining the study’s results is currently in draft form and will likely not be finalized before Oct. 29. Calvin Finch from the Texas A&M University Water Conservation and Technology Center was commissioned for $100,000 to perform the study. The bill was picked up by the City of Fair Oaks Ranch in return for releasing a 130-acre subdivision from the City of San Antonio’s jurisdiction.

The study, proposed by Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8) and initiated in October 2014, analyzed San Antonio’s water supply, security, and risk analysis of all water sources. Ultimately, the results were supposed to be used to provide context for City Council policy decisions regarding higher-level water planning – the City’s Sustainability Plan and investment in water supply projects for example.

It’s unclear if the study results would impact the rate structure conversation.

“The study should be finalized and made publicly available as quickly as possible, before significant action is taken that impacts our goals for long term water security in San Antonio,” Nirenberg stated in an email. “If that is done, there will be no need to delay the vote. Without that level of transparency, we risk compromising debate that is critical to the process.”

It’s been five years since the rate structure has been updated.

Puente’s presentation focused on the new tiers for water pricing, which further splits the current five-tiered structure into eight, and the public utility’s efforts to get the word out to low income customers about its affordability programs.

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The latter of which is an attempt to address the concerns of community groups, including the Sierra Club and Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, which have spoken out against the rate structure as it may disproportionately effect low-income, high water users that. For instance, some families cannot decrease their needs because they have more than the average amount of family members living in one home – not because of extensive landscaping.

SAWS has begun block walking in District 5 to spread the word about various affordability programs that these families may be eligible for. Between the Affordability Discount, free water-efficient fixtures, and WaterSaver landscaping coupons and consultations, SAWS hopes to close the gap for low-income customers.

The rate structure also slightly increases the Availability Charge, the minimum bill that SAWS charges for fixed costs. To further encourage conservation, SAWS residential customers that use less than 2,992 gallons would receive a discounted Availability Charge.

Proposed SAWS residential rate structure.
Proposed SAWS residential rate structure.

SAWS and City officials also praised the recent agreement reached between the City, SAWS, and Joint Base San Antonio to provide a backup water supply to local military bases. If all goes as planned the aquifer-dependent bases in San Antonio will soon have a more secure water future.

“I would venture to say it’s beyond a 20-year solution,” Puente said of the $11 million project that will lay nearly four miles of pipeline to facilities Camp Bullis, Ft. Sam Houston, and Lackland Air Force Base.

*Top image: Photo by Flickr user Robert V.  

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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