The San Antonio Water System will pay $75,000 to resolve an investigation by a rural groundwater district into discharges of high-priced water down a Northside creek last year.

In April 2020, the San Antonio Report published an investigation detailing SAWS’ discharges of water from its Vista Ridge pipeline, a $2.8 billion water supply line capable of delivering 16.3 billion gallons of water from aquifers below Burleson and Milam counties, east of Austin.

At the time, SAWS was racing to complete its integration pipeline, a project that had fallen behind schedule and was exceeding its early budget estimate by $80 million. SAWS was flushing roughly half of its Vista Ridge water down Mud Creek, a normally dry creek bed adjacent to its Agua Vista Station, the receiving point for Vista Ridge water.

SAWS officials told the San Antonio Report that the releases were approximately 10 million gallons – worth at least $50,000 – per day. It remains unclear exactly how much Vista Ridge water was discharged in 2020.

Following the report, the Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District (POSGCD), which oversees groundwater pumping in the Vista Ridge source area, opened its own investigation into the issue, submitting written requests for information to SAWS and the group of private companies that supply water and operate the pipeline.

On Tuesday, the SAWS board approved the $75,000 payment to settle the matter. The payment accounts for most of the total $105,000 owed to POSGCD, with the remaining $30,000 to come from the Vista Ridge companies, according to SAWS. The SAWS board approved the payment as part of its consent agenda on Tuesday, with no board discussion during the meeting.

In the resolution agreement, POSGCD acknowledged it has alleged that “the discharge was undertaken in a manner that was not a beneficial use of the water and constituted waste” and that the Vista Ridge companies violated the terms of POSGCD’s groundwater permits. However, the agreement also noted that no official violation notices have been issued, “nor has the district assessed any administrative penalties or fines of any kind.”

As part of the agreement, SAWS and the Vista Ridge companies denied any wrongdoing.

“[SAWS] denies that it violated any of the rules, or the Texas Water Code, or that any water discharged was not beneficially used, or that the discharge constituted waste,” the agreement states, adding that SAWS “denies [POSGCD] has any jurisdiction over [SAWS] or that the [district’s] rules apply to [SAWS] operations in Bexar County.”

Water from the SAWS Aqua Vista Station runs down Mud Creek in January 2020. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The payment will go to the groundwater district’s fund to assist landowners whose wells are affected by pumping in the area. The agreement also obligates the Vista Ridge companies to provide more data to POSGCD, including monthly reports detailing water deliveries to SAWS.

“One of the things that you want as a regulatory entity is compliance,” POSGCD General Manager Gary Westbrook told the San Antonio Report on Tuesday, adding that the additional information will ensure “that everyone stays in communication with each other so that something like this doesn’t happen in the future.”

SAWS finished integrating Vista Ridge into its system in July 2020. The pipeline has been “running extremely well,” said Donovan Burton, SAWS vice president of water resources and government relations.

“The operators … and SAWS are working together to ensure seamless delivery and integration to our community,” Burton said in a prepared statement Tuesday. “All parties have learned a lot in the operation of the project, and the partnership continues to be as strong as ever. We remain excited about the long-term benefits of the project to our community and region.”

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.