A San Antonio Water System plan to avoid routing sewage lines across environmentally sensitive land is not only less controversial than the original proposal but also less expensive, according to SAWS officials.

The utility’s board received the briefing Tuesday on a set of sewage development plans that have been carefully watched by local environmentalists over the past several weeks. SAWS originally planned to route between 84,000 and 100,800 gallons of raw sewage across two properties that had been enrolled in the City of San Antonio’s Edwards Aquifer Protection Plan at a cost to taxpayers of $1.5 million.

Vice President of Engineering and Construction Andrea Beymer reviewed four sewage line options SAWS planners considered to provide water service to a future residential development by Meritage Homes. The 420-home, 173-acre development is located in north Bexar County at the intersection of Blanco and Specht roads and is known as the Specht Tract.

Following dissent from the landowners and local environmentalists, SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente told the San Antonio Report earlier this month that SAWS will use a different route for the sewage lines. 

SAWS will route sewage to the south along Blanco Road, around the protected properties, Puente said.

This option will require SAWS to build a sewage line that moves uphill. An uphill flow needs a force main, along with lift stations, which require an electrical connection and are vulnerable to spills when they lose power or get clogged, Beymer said. Because it was one of the two options the SAWS board signed off on in January, no board action was needed Tuesday to approve this option, Beymer said.

SAWS estimated this option will cost $6.7 million, less than the $7.5 million estimated for installing sewer lines across the two protected properties, both of which lie over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.

The sewage pipeline on the protected land would have been encased in concrete and required erosion control, Beymer said. She added that other utility easements already exist through the two properties, including gas from CPS Energy and water from the South Comal Water Supply Corporation.

“There were special provisions that we were adding beyond the normal pipeline project in order to provide some protections in regards to sewer mains over the recharge zone,” Beymer said. 

According to Beymer’s presentation, SAWS wanted to traverse the two EAPP properties because it could utilize the slope of one of the properties to build a gravity-fed sewage pipeline flowing downhill.

A group of oak trees are marked with tape that identifies possible removal for the wastewater pipeline.
A group of oak trees on the property of Brenda Chapman are marked for possible removal during the initial plans for a gravity-fed sewage pipeline in May. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

With more than 700 miles of sewers existing over the recharge zone today, SAWS workers are aware of the risks a sewage spill would pose and “do a great job of maintaining those sewer lines,” she said. 

Still, the city has never approved running SAWS utility lines through an EAPP-acquired conservation easement, said Annalisa Peace, the executive director of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance last month. Doing so could influence the future treatment of EAPP lands, which were meant to be fully protected, she said.

SAWS’ other two options for providing service to the new development would have included the construction of a wastewater treatment plant and would have required special permits from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The first of these options would have cost an estimated $9 million. The second would have cost about $7.5 million and would have involved the creation of a municipal utility district or a water control and improvement district, according to the presentation. 

During the public comment portion of the meeting Tuesday, Peace said she would like to see more master planning in place from the city in terms of environmental strategy, and suggested a task force to help city officials in their planning.

“We should not miss this opportunity to enhance or clarify protections for San Antonio’s primary source of water,” she said. “We agreed with you, Mayor Ron Nirenberg, that the city needs to coordinate growth strategy to balance environmental conservation with an increasing population, and we’ll help you. Consider GEAA a resource in these efforts.” 

Nirenberg, who is a member of the SAWS board in his official capacity, said while the city has a lot of environmental plans in place, issues arise when the city’s unified development code conflicts with these plans. 

“So I would just encourage folks who are interested in what happened with the Specht Tract to stay tuned and stay involved in the process of the [code] revisions,” Nirenberg said. “Not all the authority lies in the City Council, in fact, much of it is at the Legislature, and we’ve had those fights before.”

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.