San Antonio Water System officials had intended to celebrate the completion of their Vista Ridge project with its headquarters lit blue to coincide with National Drinking Water Week.

Instead, the coronavirus pandemic left them commemorating it at a virtual meeting. Appearing on video chat, many wearing masks, the SAWS board of trustees spoke feelingly of the 142-mile pipeline that has untethered San Antonio’s future growth from the drought-sensitive Edwards Aquifer.

“This has been a long journey,” said SAWS board Chair Heriberto “Berto” Guerra Jr. “We struggled with water diversification for years … and this project finally came through.”

The pipeline has been in the making since 2013 and is planned to make up approximately 20 percent of the SAWS water supply. Water began flowing in January for testing purposes. SAWS payments for the water began in mid-April, officials said.

Those payments of approximately $220,000 per day will add up to $2.4 billion over 30 years, at which point SAWS will take ownership of the pipeline. The main players at this phase are Ridgewood Infrastructure, the investment firm that will financially manage the pipeline, and Canadian utilities manager EPCOR, which will operate it.

Vista Ridge water is already flowing into SAWS’ system, but only to northern suburbs like Stone Oak. Tunnels and pipelines needed to tie it into the system south of its endpoint at Agua Vista Station on Hardy Oak Boulevard won’t be finished until July, SAWS Vice President Donovan Burton said.

Like its sister utility CPS Energy, SAWS is bracing for a financial hit from coronavirus, though SAWS could see the blow offset by lower expenses.

The utility anticipates a 5 percent to 10 percent drop in revenue from water and sewer service from April through December, drawing estimates down by $33 million to $65 million, SAWS Chief Financial Officer Doug Evanson said.

However, Evanson expects SAWS to benefit from a 2.5 percent to 5 percent reduction in expenses, along with reduced interest payments. Overall, SAWS officials anticipate ending 2020 with a profit of $60 million to $84 million, within range of its budgeted $75 million.

At the meeting, SAWS trustees voted unanimously to extend emergency powers for President and CEO Robert Puente. The board in April gave Puente authority to execute contracts, make contract amendments, and make expenditures to keep the utility’s water and sewer system functioning, all without a prior board vote.

On Tuesday, Puente told board members he had not used the extra authority, saying “there was nothing we could not handle; no emergency came up.”

Asked by trustee Amy Hardberger why such an extension is necessary, SAWS general counsel Nancy Belinksy said with supply chains in disarray because of the coronavirus, there may be an “urgent need to supply materials to the community.”

San Antonio Water System board members and executives meet virtually on May 5, 2020.
San Antonio Water System board members and executives meet virtually on May 5. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

During a public comment period, SAWS watchdogs and interest groups that oppose Vista Ridge criticized Puente’s emergency powers. They also focused on how Guerra and Secretary Pat Merritt have exceeded their term limits and continue to serve on the SAWS board. Both terms expired in May 2018, according to the City.

“The Vista Ridge water is flowing; Mr. Guerra promised to be going,” said Terry Burns, chair of the Alamo Group of the Sierra Club, which opposes the project.

City Council appoints six of the seven SAWS trustees for a maximum of two four-year terms, with the mayor serving as the seventh member. Council members have not acted to replace Guerra or Merritt after their terms expired.

“This community needs to thank you for what you’ve done and it needs to stop harassing you and Pat Merritt to get off this board,” Puente told Guerra at the meeting.

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.