The San Antonio Water System is flushing some of the most expensive water in Texas down a Northside creek as it struggles to finish a connection pipeline that has run nearly $80 million over early cost estimates.

Originally set to be finished in mid-April, construction on an underground pipeline to connect Vista Ridge’s endpoint to the main SAWS system south of Loop 1604 now won’t be finished until July, SAWS Chief Operating Officer Steve Clouse said at the utility’s June board meeting on Tuesday.

That pipeline, dubbed the Central Water Integration Pipeline (CWIP), will allow SAWS to fully absorb the 16.3 billion gallons piped into San Antonio via Vista Ridge, a more than 140-mile line that pumps water from underground aquifers in Burleson and Milam counties, east of Austin.

Under a unique public-private partnership structure, banks and private investors financed the construction of Vista Ridge, while SAWS paid for the CWIP. To support construction of CWIP and make regular payments for Vista Ridge water, City Council in 2015 approved fees that as of this year have added $9.22 per month to the average SAWS residential user’s bill, according SAWS figures.

As far back as at least 2015, SAWS officials had told the utility’s board that the CWIP would cost around $146 million. But on Tuesday, SAWS Chief Financial Officer Doug Evanson told the board that it the CWIP will actually cost the utility $224 million through the end of 2020, citing tunneling projects in the Stone Oak area that turned out to be more complicated and expensive than expected.

“I think our estimates were quite a bit low,” Evanson told board members Tuesday. “Doing that sort of tunneling project, I don’t think, is our core competency.”

Terry Burns, president of the Alamo Group of the Sierra Club, on Tuesday called the revelation “appalling.” Sierra Club members have opposed Vista Ridge since its inception and have been part of a coalition calling for stronger City management of San Antonio’s municipal water and sewer utility.

“There should be some kind of oversight; [that] is a lot of money,” Burns said.

Also, because of the CWIP delay, Vista Ridge water is currently being piped to a swath of only 34,000 customers in the Stone Oak area, Clouse told the Rivard Report via email Tuesday. Roughly the same volume of water is flowing down Mud Creek, south of Vista Ridge’s endpoint at Agua Vista Station on Hardy Oak Boulevard.

Those 34,000 customers are getting around 10 million gallons of Vista Ridge water, with SAWS releasing another 10 million gallons per day being released into Mud Creek, Clouse said. The exact numbers fluctuate depending on demand in Stone Oak.

Water prices are usually calculated by acre-foot; 10 million gallons equals 30.7 acre-feet. With Vista Ridge water expected to cost SAWS a minimum of roughly $1,600 per acre-foot, that means the utility spending at least around $50,000 a day on water currently being flushed away.

Clouse told the Rivard Report this will change as more Vista Ridge water makes it into the SAWS system and as demand for irrigation water in Stone Oak goes up over the summer.

“We expect flows to Mud Creek to reduce as we start flushing pipelines in preparation to fully integrate the Vista Ridge water,” Clouse said.

Nobody raised the issue of the lost water at the Tuesday board meeting. However, SAWS board members and executives did discuss the CWIP’s cost overruns.

The difference in cost estimates has happened periodically over the last four or five years. For example, on Oct. 31, 2019, SAWS vice president Andrea Beymer told City Council members the CWIP would cost $175 million to $185 million, citing labor, electricity, and tunneling expenses.

At Tuesday’s meeting, SAWS’ first in-person board gathering since the coronavirus outbreak began, Trustee Amy Hardberger asked about how these estimates have changed over time. Evanson said that as of December 2017, SAWS estimated the CWIP to cost $150 million.

“I will tell you that obviously it has gone up from that,” Evanson said.

“Oh yeah, I remember the overly low numbers,” Hardberger replied.

“Yeah,” Evanson continued. “But that, I would say, is before we did any sort of design whatsoever and I think … there are several areas of difference, but I think the biggest area of difference was in that tunneling project.”

SAWS officials on Tuesday also discussed another problem that affected Vista Ridge late last month. That’s when a contractor for oil and gas pipeline company Kinder Morgan pierced the Vista Ridge pipeline with construction equipment outside of San Marcos.

SAWS officials shared an image of water spewing from Vista Ridge at a rate of at least 160 gallons per minute. Clouse on Tuesday said that the private-sector side of Vista Ridge, currently led by Canadian utility operator EPCOR, failed to enroll the pipeline in the state’s underground utility registry.

811 is a non-profit service meant to help avoid damage to underground water, gas, and communication lines. Contractors and even homeowners about to dig are required to call 811 two business days before starting work. Utility companies then visit the location and mark where their lines are located to help avoid damage.

Clouse told the board that the Vista Ridge companies’ failure to enroll the pipeline in 811 was “an oversight” that those companies have since corrected.

“I think people were all assuming that someone else had done it,” Clouse said.

It took about four days to fix the damage and resume production, during which time Vista Ridge lost about 2 million gallons of water that SAWS doesn’t have to pay for, Clouse said.

SAWS will likely be readier for that lost water after the CWIP work is done. Clouse on Tuesday explained that the utility must slowly blend Vista Ridge water with water from SAWS’ existing sources in phases.

Slight differences in acidity and temperature could cause built-up layers of gunk in older pipes to slough off and make it into people’s drinking water. Clouse referred to this build-up as a “rust and slime layer.”

“Integrating the water, putting it into our distribution systems, seems simple enough,” Clouse said. “But it’s actually pretty complicated and something that we want to very, very carefully manage.”

This article has been updated to accurately reflect the San Antonio Water System’s 2015 cost estimates of integrating Vista Ridge, the fee increase to average SAWS customers since 2015 to pay for Vista Ridge, and the status of water lost in a pipeline breach in May. 

Avatar photo

Brendan Gibbons

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