A group of reform-seeking petitioners targeting the San Antonio Water System will not see their issues put to a vote in May.
The SAWS Accountability Act PAC is an unlikely coalition of conservative government watchdogs, environmentalists, and activists from rural areas near the source area for SAWS’ Vista Ridge pipeline, a 140-mile pipeline that pumps groundwater from aquifers east of Austin. The group launched its petition drive in February 2020 seeking constraints on SAWS’ leadership.
On Thursday, one of the group’s leaders, Reinette King, acknowledged the amendment won’t go forward over the next several months.
“Largely due to [COVID-19], we don’t have the required number of signatures to get on the ballot in May,” King said in a City Council meeting Thursday.
The group needed 20,000 signatures to put its City charter amendment on the San Antonio ballot. Linda Curtis of the Bastrop-based League of Independent Voters told the San Antonio Report that the group is not sharing how many signatures it gathered. The group is meeting Monday “to carve out a path forward,” she said.
“We’re still counting and on Monday we’ll be looking at the November ballot,” Curtis said, adding that the group could also continue its efforts in future years.
A similar petition drive from climate activists seeking changes to CPS Energy, San Antonio’s other municipally owned utility, ended last month, with activists saying they had gathered 14,000 signatures.
In many ways, the SAWS Act PAC represents backlash to Vista Ridge, a water pipeline project that started pumping water to San Antonio last year, five years after it got final approval from San Antonio City Council. The SAWS Act would have required an “independent performance audit” for Vista Ridge and other SAWS projects costing $1 billion or more.
In her public comments, King faulted council members for not signing on to an outside audit of Vista Ridge, which at around $2,000 per acre-foot is some of the most expensive water in SAWS’ portfolio. SAWS customers will pay the private companies operating Vista Ridge $2.8 billion over 30 years before SAWS takes ownership of the pipeline in 2050.
“You all know Vista Ridge is bringing far too much water far too early, and SAWS is scrambling for how to handle the financial stress on the utilities magnified by the pandemic and its economic impact on 1.8 million ratepayers,” King said. “Stop hiding from this.”
SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente told the San Antonio Report that he thinks petitioners are “just not happy with the project – period.”
“What I do know is that we have outside auditors that look at our system,” Puente said. “We have an internal audit. We have a board that looks over everything that we do. We have the City’s public utilities office that oversees what we do. And we have City Council.”
SAWS officials have always acknowledged that in its early years, the pipeline would supply more water than San Antonio needs. The Vista Ridge contract requires SAWS to pay for water that arrives at its storage tanks in Stone Oak, regardless of how much the utility might need that day.
SAWS officials believe it’s worth paying a premium for this water now. It allowed them to lock in a contract with a steady long-term supply at a price that will remain stable even as water becomes a more expensive commodity in Texas, a drought-prone state with a booming population.
“On a day like today, there’s not going to be very much demand at all in our system, but we’re still taking the [Vista Ridge] water,” Puente said Thursday morning, as rain fell over downtown San Antonio. He added that SAWS saw higher demand last summer during dry weather, “and so we used a lot of the [Vista Ridge water] all the way into our system.”
Puente said he and colleagues had basically considered the petition out of the running for the May election on Jan. 8, which they considered to be the deadline to make it on the May ballot. The actual deadline proved to be amorphous, with neither the City Clerk nor the Bexar County Elections Department providing clear information about when petitioners needed to file signatures to get their issues on the May ballot. SAWS Act PAC leaders believe they had until around Feb. 14 to file.
As to why they failed, Puente said such petitions are “inherently difficult” and that the pandemic presented additional “problems” for the SAWS Act PAC.
“A third reason is that the Vista Ridge project was very well thought-out,” Puente said. “It’s a very unique project, and it’s really going to resolve these water security issues that we have in San Antonio for the next six decades.”
Aside from Vista Ridge measures, the SAWS Act PAC had also sought to impose additional accountability reforms on the utility, such as replacing Puente’s role with a general manager who serves an eight-year term with a salary capped at 10 times the salary of the lowest-paid SAWS employee. It would also have required more stringent enforcement of the existing four-year term limits for SAWS board members. In practice, SAWS board members have stayed on longer, with City Council not moving quickly to appoint replacements.
In emails to the San Antonio Report Thursday, SAWS Act PAC leaders sounded determined to continue their activism.
“The only thing I have to add is, ‘It ain’t over till the fat lady sings,’” King said.