San Antonio Water System President and CEO Robert Puente on Wednesday briefed Mayor Ron Nirenberg and the new City Council on SAWS‘ draft five-year water management plan, which continues to emphasize water conservation and diversification of water sources.

“We think this plan will provide water security for decades to come,” Puente said.

Also included in the SAWS plan is the continued use of technology such as desalination and regional partnerships. The plan is based on population and demand projections, the duration of the 1950s drought, and the intensity of the 2011-2014 drought. The SAWS board of trustees will consider the plan for approval Sept. 12.

San Antonio has seen a 50% total reduction in use of existing water sources over the last 34 years, thanks to a consistent promotion of conservation. Supply diversity has reduced the area’s reliance on the Edwards Aquifer to 61% (470,000 acre-feet) in a non-drought year. SAWS hopes, under normal conditions, to lower that reliance to 54% by 2070.

“Our business model is to convince our customers to buy less water product,” Puente told Council members during their first B session.

He said if it were not for years of proactive water conservation, San Antonio would have needed numerous major projects to help meet increasing demands on water.

“We would’ve needed four or five Vista Ridges, four or five [desalination] projects,” Puente said.

Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) questioned whether the SAWS plan comprehensively accounts for the latest in scientific projections for regional rainfall totals and droughts.

“I feel confident in the plan,” Puente said, noting that it includes a fair amount of flexibility for its estimates.

Puente also said he looks forward to the Texas Water Development Board to revising its modeling to yield even more accurate water availability and use projections in a given area.

This, Puente and Nirenberg said, could help SAWS fine-tune the estimates of water amounts that the Vista Ridge pipeline is projected to produce, especially excess water that San Antonio could later sell to other communities.

Nirenberg said that for the first time, SAWS’ water management plan “contemplates the regulatory framework under which it works,” noting that the document integrates such things as water restrictions. He also said it is important for SAWS to keep emphasizing the value of water conservation, and not just in its water management plan.

“Lifestyle change doesn’t just happen,” the mayor said.

SAWS plans to continue promoting conservation by focusing on outdoor usage and making it easier for customers to remotely monitor and control their water use through a smartphone.

Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) said she hopes to see more emphasis on rain barrels, rainwater harvesting, and water catchment. SAWS has a program to help offset costs of installing a rainwater harvesting system.

Councilman John Courage (D9) has suggested that SAWS raise its yearly gross revenue contribution to the City from 2.7% to 4%. Courage said that increase could generate an extra $8.1 million for the City to spend on street maintenance.

In response, Puente said Wednesday that SAWS likely would consider another rate increase if it were to raise its contribution to the City, because it already has implemented rate hikes to fund system upgrades and scheduled increases to help cover the Vista Ridge supply project.

The public is invited to provide input on the draft water management plan via email at WMP-Input@saws.org through Aug. 15. Paper copies of the draft plan are available for review at SAWS headquarters at 2800 U.S. 281 North. SAWS also plans to host a Facebook Live question-and-answer session sometime this month.

Following Wednesday’s briefing, Nirenberg discussed why he cast the lone dissenting vote to approve giving Puente a 5% raise and a $99,285.71 bonus. The pay hike, effective Jan. 1, 2018, will boost Puente’s compensation to $567,480.11.

Nirenberg said his “no” vote was based solely on the process of measuring the performance of a chief executive and how that person helps the agency to meet benchmarks. As mayor, Nirenberg is an ex-officio member of the SAWS board.

“The metrics need to be re-evaluated,” Nirenberg said. “We need to have a more uniform process to decide on a salary bonus every year.”

The mayor said this is particularly important as scrutiny of executives’ compensation in the public sector has increased over recent years. Nirenberg said he’s pleased that an executive compensation committee will take a closer look at these issues the next time SAWS evaluates Puente’s job performance.

On Monday, CPS Energy’s board of trustees – including Nirenberg – unanimously approved a 10.5% raise and a $290,000 bonus for Chief Executive Officer Paula Gold-Williams, bringing her compensation to $735,000 for last year. Nirenberg said there was justification for the raise and bonus for Gold-Williams.

“[CPS Energy’s] adjustment had all of those concerns addressed,” he said, adding that one recent public sector analysis showed that CPS Energy’s CEO has been historically underpaid.

Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.