Water sprinkler. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Shaylor. https://www.flickr.com/photos/shaylor/50456484/in/photolist-5sAXo-23gnH-jNdY7P-5fCQQE-dCvFiB-81fE3q-eXZgNk-74iJS-rTqywP-uydHNN-8FbvXq-53nSSW-4kSsRe-cBgdDq-8HQpeT-9V6iF1-dX2FY1-n6xqon-5cakqk-8s6Bhp-r85iAm-bR5AVr-gqtjjS-72HbCb-vMiCx9-57iH3e-iCrWXj-2HzDY6-4MoWUi-6RsMNq-8HHLgL-8ibTJp-6N2iZq-nT2eQ9-h2RQDB-6UTkFo-8N3HDK-ozF9K-a4NqdE-ekzLJk-ofzwbc-7JBdnP-65198Z-ciDu8q-9ZDqBU-MRYo7-6991XW-Mw517-eWFCLT-d1eeLf
Water sprinkler. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Shaylor. Credit: Shaylor / Flickr

Implementing once-per-week lawn watering restrictions for San Antonio Water System customers year round would ultimately cause rates to increase and would not save an exorbitant amount of water, according to SAWS executives.

The public utility’s board was briefed about the effects of imposing Stage One water restrictions, more than one year after interest in the idea spiked in 2015. Rather than implementing restrictions, SAWS Vice President of Water Resources Donovan Burton recommended strengthening voluntary conservation programs, technology, and communication tools.

For instance, SAWS announced during the board meeting that it’s launching rain water barrel coupons. Typically, these 50-gallon cisterns run for $120 each, said SAWS Conservation Director Karen Guz. The rebate would drop that down to $40. Starting Tuesday, SAWS customers can apply for the discounted barrels that will be distributed on Jan. 14.

Stage One watering restrictions call for landscape watering only on a designated time and day. Currently, Year Round rules allow for, among other things, landscape watering any day of the week before 11 a.m. or after 7 p.m.

Environmentalist groups and some City Council members called for the City to analyze how to best manage watering restrictions after a summer and winter of sporadic rain caused a “yo-yo” effect. When a restriction is imposed, use goes down and the aquifer recharges. Then, when a restriction is lifted, people start using more water and the aquifer level lowers – triggering another restriction. Back and forth.

Under Stage Two restrictions, only certain addresses can water on certain days between 7-11 a.m. and 7-11 p.m. This has been implemented only a few times since City Council adopted a conservation ordinance in 2014, which automatically triggers restrictions based on the level of the Edwards Aquifer.

Stage Three and Four have never been implemented. Credit: Courtesy / SAWS

Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) proposed that the City consider such a measure in an Aug. 24 letter to his colleagues. Councilman Joe Krier (D9) adamantly opposed to the idea. Both Council members penned opinion pieces in the San Antonio Express News. Click here to read Krier’s and here to read Nirenberg’s.

While there are “pros” to year-round Stage One, Burton said, they are marginal and the “cons” outweigh them.

Year-round Stage One would help prevent the “yo-yo” effect, but it would send a “contradictory message,” Burton said, that SAWS is investing in water supplies while restricting its use.

While some years that have drought restrictions may yield net savings, on average 2,188 acre-feet, those savings do not eliminate the need for more water supply projects in the long run, according to data compiled by SAWS staff.

In some cases, Burtain said, a once-per-week restriction actually causes “a rush to water your lawn on that particular day,” just because it’s the only day people can – rain or shine.

In the case of saving water during periods of high rainfall, he said, “‘saved’ is in quotation marks.

“It’s not like when you save money – you put it in your checking account and you can use it later,” Puente told the Rivard Report on Monday. “We don’t know if the water’s going to be there because it may flow out of the springs, it may be used by someone else with a permit.”

Some see stricter water restrictions as an over-reach of City government.

“If there is a well-defined, urgent need for a new water-use restriction, I will support the measure,” Krier stated in December 2015. “But if it’s a matter of saying to San Antonians they can water their lawns just once a week because we want to make a point about conservation — not because our water security demands it — no, I can’t support that.”

There’s also a financial impact. SAWS can’t sell more water during periods of less rainfall, Burton said, which would cause rate increases. If the average 2,188 acre-feet isn’t sold, data indicates a 1.1% rate increase would be necessary.

“The cheapest water is the water we don’t use. We can discuss unintended consequences and how to deal with those, but to make those potential concerns the basis for not at least trying Stage One water restrictions is short-sighted and detrimental to our long-term success,” Nirenberg stated on Tuesday. “… If SAWS believes that reasonable conservation measures lead to ‘overuse,’ then that suggests we have a general understanding of what is ‘proper use’ and have public policy responsibility to build awareness and to enforce it.”

The Council’s Transportation Technology and Utilities Committee is expected to consider a more strict year-round watering rule during its meeting next Wednesday, Nov. 9.

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