A statewide progressive Black and Latino organization has lent its support to a petition drive targeting the San Antonio Water System.

Texas Organizing Project (TOP) is the latest group to sign onto a coalition fighting to ratchet back the SAWS CEO’s pay, enforce existing term limits for the utility’s board, audit any project worth $1 billion or more, and halt SAWS’ lobbying efforts at the Texas Legislature.

Organizers call their legislation the SAWS Accountability Act. Their plan is to collect 20,000 signatures this year needed to get the act on the May 2021 ballot.

The growing coalition pushing back on the municipally owned utility sprang from opposition to SAWS’ Vista Ridge pipeline, a $2.8 billion water supply project that has added $9.22 per month to the average SAWS’ residential user’s bill over the past five years.

In 2015, TOP organizers joined social justice groups, environmentalists, and residents from the pipeline’s source area in Burleson and Milam counties to protest Vista Ridge ahead of a key City Council vote.

“The voices of community members have not been heard,” said Celia Valles, a San Antonio-based climate justice organizer with TOP. “With SAWS, I think that’s evident with Vista Ridge. People have been protesting this since its conception and that has not really led to any of the changes that community members feel are necessary.”

In TOP, the SAWS Accountability Act PAC gains a powerful organizing ally with a record of successful petition drives. TOP organizers in 2018 were instrumental in gathering more than 140,000 signatures to put a paid sick leave measure on the November ballot. The group has also been pushing CPS Energy, San Antonio’s other municipally-owned utility, to shift further away from fossil fuels. TOP is also active in the Houston and Dallas areas.

“We welcome their help,” said Reinette King, a leader of the SAWS Accountability Act PAC, of TOP’s recent endorsement. “They’re a lot of young, energetic people.”

In an interview Tuesday, SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente said he wants to better understand TOP members’ concerns about Vista Ridge. SAWS officials have spoken with TOP deputy director Michelle Tremillo in the past, he said.

“I like TOP,” Puente said. “I think it’s a great organization. They are very well organized. I, personally, as a San Antonian, believe in what their particular issues are.”

If the problem is the bill increase to pay for Vista Ridge, SAWS has in recent years significantly expanded its programs for low-income residents and others who can’t afford their bills, Puente said.

“As the [water] rates have changed, so has the rate of assistance to our customers,” said SAWS Vice President of Communications Gavino Ramos, who has helped oversee the expansion of those programs.

The groups behind the petition drive span the political spectrum. King, for example, is a conservative activist and former zoning commissioner who was part of a firefighters union-led campaign for 2018 charter amendments aimed, in part, at undercutting then-City Manager Sheryl Sculley.

“Everybody has a water bill,” King said. “Everybody is being impacted by the Vista Ridge water boondoggle. It’s something we can all come together to agree on. We all agree SAWS needs to be transparent.”

Puente said that SAWS has been open about Vista Ridge from the beginning, when it held negotiations in 2014 with water suppliers that were open to the public. That continued through dozens of City Council and SAWS board meetings, SAWS’ public briefings to council members, and other proceedings that happened in full view.

“For the last close to 48 months – four years – we have had a Visa Ridge item on our board where there was something to vote on,” Puente said. “That’s being transparent, as open as possible on these issues.”

Valles said TOP agreed to get involved after TOP member Alice Canestaro-Garcia, a San Antonio resident who has long opposed Vista Ridge, brought the petition drive to the group’s attention. A majority of San Antonio TOP members involved in the group’s climate justice work then voted to join the petition drive, she said.

“Our members felt this was something that was important for our city and our community,” Valles said. “Our intention is to work within our capabilities to help collect the number of signatures needed so this gets on the ballot.”

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is the San Antonio Report's environment and energy reporter.