San Antonio Water System President and CEO Robert Puente was awarded the AccelerateH2O “Innovator of the Year” award at the third annual InvestH2O Forum. The event took place in Austin earlier this month, but Puente accepted his award Thursday at the beginning of a SAWS board meeting.
“It’s affirmation that you’re doing a good job,” Puente said. “But it really is affirmation that SAWS, as a utility and as its employees, are doing a good job.”
AccelerateH2O Executive Director and Senior Advisor Richard Seline presented Puente with the award. Dick Evans, former chairman of Frost Bank and co-chair of AccelerateH2O, and J.Randy Harig, chairman of the Texas Research and Technology Foundation, also attended the meeting and briefly spoke on the importance of the award and of InvestH2O.
“There are very few public utilities in the state of Texas that have taken the risk that SAWS has taken,” Seline said. “You have all made a significant investment in desalination, aquifer storage, leak detection … a number of challenges that a large-scale system like this that has always been – Mayor, as you know – looking to securing its water. San Antonio is recognized as a place where innovation has been occurring in a lot of ways that folks don’t even realize here in our own backyard.”
Mayor Ron Nirenberg attended the ceremony that took place before the utility’s board meeting. This was the first SAWS meeting that Nirenberg attended as an ex officio member.
“You all know as a council member my interest in water security, which is the number one role of this body, and certainly know the interesting, if not difficult, conversations we’ve had at Council on that subject,” Nirenberg said. “I look forward to joining you now as a colleague.”
AccelerateH2O is a Texas nonprofit that seeks to overcome the limitations and boundaries of implementing new technologies to address critical water challenges throughout the state. InvestH2O is the organization’s forum for connecting the best technological products, services, and solutions with investors, procurement decision-makers, and water managers responsible for merging the private and public sector.
Puente was appointed to his SAWS position in May 2008, following 15 years of service in the Texas House of Representatives. During his time in the Legislature he was appointed to the House Natural Resources Committee, which is responsible for crafting the state’s water policy. He became the committee’s chairman in 2003.
His accomplishments at SAWS include harnessing technologies in ways that stored record amounts of water for extra reserves, pioneering the action of capturing and selling sewer gases, and spearheading the Vista Ridge pipeline project. The project is in early stages as over 140 miles of pipeline are being laid for the city to receive water from the Carrizo Aquifer in Burleson County.
His success at SAWS has not come without challenges from City Council or members of the community. But the greatest challenges come from maintaining the water itself, he said.
“The challenges are as simple as bringing water in and then taking water out,” Puente said. “It seems very, very simple but oftentimes it gets very complicated. So any time we can be fiscally responsible and take shortcuts there, and do things that really have a meaningful impact on the bottom line, really means a lot to our ratepayers.”
The SAWS ratepayers were a focal point for Nirenberg during the meeting. During a round of questioning on the Vista Ridge water pipeline update, he took an opportunity to outline some of his expectations and priorities for the SAWS staff to work on.
“The first one is a renewed commitment to conservation,” Nirenberg said. “There are many citizens in this community that simply cannot afford their water or electrical bill. Simply subsidizing the bill is not good enough. It’s very important for me that we establish a rate structure, and we also establish priority on projects that can protect affordability.
“The second one is fiscal responsibility,” Nirenberg said. “We have to make sure we’re doing what we can to invest in projects that are going to be affordable in the long run.”
He asked Puente and SAWS staff to concentrate on these elements when they come back to Council to present the 2017 Water Management Plan.
Nirenberg also lauded the board for its transparency in creating the original $3.4 billion Vista Ridge contract, but reiterated concerns he had last year that there should be matching levels of transparency and communication when it comes to amending the contract.
After his remarks, Nirenberg asked whether or not SAWS would be able to provide live updates on the Vista Ridge project on their website. Despite initial hesitations from staff, Puente pulled down his microphone and resolutely stated that such an update system could be added to the website.
Puente followed the mayor’s remarks with assurances that SAWS looked forward to sharing the pertinent information with the City Council so long as their presence was not minimized by the Council’s “more pressing issues.” Nirenberg assured him they wouldn’t be marginalized at City Hall.
Following the conclusion of the meeting, Puente noted the added value of having Nirenberg join the SAWS board.
“The great thing is he essentially laid out his policies and wants, which is the direction he wants us to look at and so we’re very happy to start doing that,” Puente said.
Puente has a record of bringing innovation to the intersection of public and private utility service. From enhancing meter reading services to implementing the Vista Ridge project, the leader of SAWS has brought San Antonio technologically improved utilities.
“This is to not only recognize what you’ve done, what your leadership has done, what your staff has done, but also to encourage even the next step,” Seline said. “We believe that San Antonio truly is a global platform for the world to come and identify ways to leverage technology innovation with the public system.”