More than three-quarters of the San Antonio Water System’s residential customers could see a reduction in their water bills next year if a new rate structure recommended by a SAWS ratepayers’ committee is approved by the utility’s board of trustees this fall.

A SAWS official presented a new rate structure suggested by the utility’s rate advisory committee to the SAWS board Tuesday. Under the proposal, up to 83% of residential customers would see a reduction in their monthly water bill, and all residential customers would see a reduction in their monthly wastewater bill.

The proposed structure also would charge high water users — both residential and commercial — an increased percentage, with the aim of encouraging these users to use less water.

“Historically we take seriously what the [rate advisory committee] suggests — that’s what they’re there for,” said Mary Bailey, SAWS’ vice president of customer experience. “Their goal was to come up with these recommendations based on their review, and so historically the board has accepted those recommendations to move forward.”

Under this structure, a resident’s combined water and wastewater bill would be reduced by as much as 8.4%, said rate advisory committee Chairwoman Frances Gonzalez. Fixed charges for most customers also would decrease by more than 20%, she added.

The new rate structure also would change the way the utility’s assistance program for qualifying lower-income customers is set up. The Affordability Discount Program would become similar to the normal rate structure in that it will be a tiered system dependent on how much water a customer uses. Still, all customers enrolled in the current ADP program would see a reduction in their monthly bills, Gonzalez said. Their bill reductions will range from 33% to 57% depending on water use, she said.

How much lower residents’ bills would be would depend on how much water they use. SAWS officials clarified that a change in rate structure is not the same as a rate increase or decrease; it is simply a change in how SAWS calculates what customers will owe.

“The folks that are going to pay more they’ll feel like they had a rate increase, right?” Bailey said. “And the folks that are going to be paying less — hopefully they see this as a rate reduction.”

SAWS Chairwoman Jelynne LeBlanc Jamison and trustee Amy Hardberger indicated support for the proposed structure since it comes at a time many residents are struggling financially.

To gain more input on how residents feel about the proposed new structure, the utility will hold community meetings, visit neighborhood associations and solicit feedback through social media, Bailey said. After gaining feedback and making any necessary adjustments, SAWS staff plan to bring the new structure before the board for approval in November. City Council also would have to approve the structure for it to go into effect in January.

Going to Stage 3?

The discussion about a new rate structure comes at a time customers across the South are seeing record high power bills due to the extreme heat the region is experiencing, and persistent drought conditions have raised water supply concerns in some areas.

On Tuesday, SAWS officials discussed whether any further conservation measures needed to be taken due to ongoing drought conditions.

Hardberger questioned SAWS Director of Water Conservation Karen Guz and Chief Financial Officer Doug Evanson about why the utility has not declared Stage 3 water restrictions along with the Edwards Aquifer Authority.

“I’ve been doing this a long time,” Guz said. “In my 21 years here I’ve been through quite a few droughts, and my experience has been that when we start out [with water restrictions] it just takes some time to get everybody to take the actions we need.”

SAWS customers are still adjusting to Stage 2 watering restrictions, Guz said. While SAWS has taken measures to enforce compliance — including hiring 10 additional part-time police officers to help issue citations to violators — it’s at levels about on par with past Stage 2 events, Guz said.

“I would like to see the savings from that full compliance, because it seems just inherently more fair to get everybody complying with the rules of today than it is to impose what are going to be really challenging rules if we went to stage 3,” Guz said.

Due to the heat, the utility is experiencing a record number of leaks and pipe breaks, Guz told trustees. The utility has seen almost 700 this summer, compared to about 200 last summer.

That’s because the area’s clay-like soil shifts and cracks when heat dries it out, Guz said. With scant rain, the soil is drier than usual and is causing shifting that destabilizes pipes, she said, making them more susceptible to breaks.

Because SAWS cannot send its workers out to work for long periods of time in the extreme heat of the day, leaks are taking longer to fix, Guz said. She and SAWS staff asked residents to be patient after they report a leak.

“We appreciate being made aware that it’s there, but we just want to let folks know that there’s a lot happening behind the scenes after we get that call,” SAWS spokeswoman Anne Hayden said.

Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett is the Science & Utilities reporter for the San Antonio Report.