The San Antonio Water System should prioritize affordability above all else when reconfiguring its water and sewer rates, according to a citizen advisory committee. 

The roughly 20-member SAWS Rate Advisory Committee (RAC) picked affordability as its top choice from a list of 10 priorities as part of its recommendations to the City-owned water and sewer utility. SAWS is undergoing a rate study, as it does every five years. Its last study ended in 2015. 

“Ultimately, we want to understand the values of the community,” Rick Giardina, a vice president of utility consulting firm Raftelis, told RAC members in October. Raftelis is doing most of the technical work associated with the rate study, along with helping to guide the RAC meetings. 

Since 2015, SAWS customers have faced back-to-back bill hikes each year, with the largest – nearly 10 percent – set for 2020. Next year’s increase will go toward the $220,000 per day SAWS must pay for water from the Vista Ridge pipeline project, a 142-mile pipeline that will provide 16.3 billion gallons of water per year from groundwater sources east of Austin. Vista Ridge is set to start providing water in April 2020. 

At their Dec. 10 meeting, RAC members chose affordability and conservation as their top two priorities, placing “economic development” — offering low water rates to businesses — at the bottom of their list. RAC members later voted to cut “economic development” from the list entirely.

The SAWS Rate Advisory Committee's ranking of priorities for water and sewer rates.
The SAWS Rate Advisory Committee’s ranking of priorities for water and sewer rates.

At their Nov. 12 meeting, RAC members defined affordability as the ability of all SAWS customers to afford “essential water and sewer services.” The process led to a discussion of what it means to not be able to afford water in San Antonio. 

“San Antonio is a tale of two cities,” said RAC chair Frances Gonzalez, a former top aid to Julian Castro during his tenures as San Antonio mayor and U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, at the meeting. 

“San Antonio is ethnically and racially integrated, but it is economically segregated,” Gonzalez continued.  “That means there are large, large swaths of San Antonio, where poor people live. There are lots of poor people here. That doesn’t mean they don’t want to pay their bills.”

The move could be a correction for what some SAWS observers see as a flaw in the current rate structure. In 2015, SAWS raised rates for single-family residential customers more than it did for commercial, industrial, and multi-family residential customers.

SAWS did implement extremely low rates for residential customers who used around 3,000 gallons or less, which was dubbed the “life-line rate.” However, this rate has been criticized for not actually helping low-income families, who often struggle to keep their water use low enough to qualify. 

“I will be the first to admit, I don’t think the life-line rate did what we wanted to achieve,” SAWS Chief Financial Officer Doug Evanson told committee members at their Oct. 29 meeting.  

Evanson also said that residential customers have reduced their per-person water use since 2015, while businesses have collectively used more water. 

The rate study process is a chance for San Antonio residents who aren’t typically involved with SAWS to peek under the utility’s hood.

One revelation that came in response to RAC members’ questions: SAWS has the highest combined residential water and sewer rates of any major Texas city for low water use (1,000 gallons or less per month). That’s because SAWS has relatively low per-gallon charges but the highest fixed charges of any major city in Texas.

SAWS has the highest fixed charges of any major water utility in Texas, but relatively lower volumetric rates.
SAWS has the highest fixed charges of any major water utility in Texas, but relatively lower volumetric rates.

The RAC’s recommendations will factor into how SAWS officials consider setting water and sewer rates for the next five years. Eventually, the SAWS board and City Council will have to approve any proposed changes to the rate structure. 

“My goals with … this committee would be to get accurate, good data so that we as a committee can make proper choices and then communicate those choices to the community,” said Joe Yakubik, an electrical engineer who committee members chose as their vice chair at the October meeting. 

In 2015, SAWS first began implementing eight progressive tiers of residential water rates, rising from $0.07 to $0.48 per 100 gallons, as use increases.

SAWS implemented these rates after the RAC last met in 2014 and 2015, with the previous RAC members recommended conservation as SAWS’ No. 1 priority. The rate structure was meant to send a price signal to residents who use high volumes to water lawns and landscapes. 

The RAC is set to continue meeting twice per month through May 2020. Meetings are 6 to 8 p.m. at SAWS headquarters at 2800 U.S. Highway 281, with video streamed live at SAWS’ website. 

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He serves as the assistant manager of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance.