Water restrictions have been lifted following a surge of rainfall in September.
Water restrictions have been lifted following a surge of rainfall in September. Credit: Flickr / Robert V

Is San Antonio heading toward permanent adoption of Stage One water restrictions? While San Antonio Water System (SAWS) is exploring the possibility and seeking public input, City staff and City Council committees are also considering the matter as part of a larger City initiative to establish its own long-range strategic water management plan.

The wheels of government turning slowly on the issue might not make headlines, but the underlying premise – that San Antonio’s cycles of drought make relaxed water restrictions unrealistic as the city’s population grows and sprawls – suggests the eventual conclusion will be a City Council vote on the matter sometime in 2016.

Right now, lawn irrigations and other activities are subject only to relaxed Year-Round water restrictions when the Edwards Aquifer is above 660 feet, which is sea level at the J-17 Bexar County index well at Fort Sam Houston. Homeowners with automatic irrigation systems are permitted to water seven days a week if they so choose before 11 a.m. or after 7 p.m. Inevitably, those time periods with the aquifer above 660 feet are increasingly infrequent.

SAWS currently has Stage Two water restrictions in place which go into effect when the J-17 well level falls below 650 feet based on a 10-day rolling average of well measurements. The J-17 well level stood at 646.3 feet on Wednesday. Lawn irrigation restrictions are the same as Stage One, but other limitations go into effect that can be reviewed by clicking here. Some conservationists favor making the Stage Two restrictions year-round.

Following a Wednesday staff presentation, the City’s Governance Committee voted unanimously to have the City’s Transportation, Technology and Utilities Committee agree on the proposal to make Stage 1 water restrictions permanent.

Councilmember and Committee member Ron Nirenberg (D8), the Council’s most outspoken advocate for water conservation and management and a City strategic plan separate from any SAWS plan, sent an Aug. 24 memo to Mayor Ivy Taylor and senior city staff, stating the city should consider prioritizing year-round conservation measures.

Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8) asks the SAWS board candidates questions about water management. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8) asks the SAWS board candidates questions about water management during a previous meeting. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Ben Gorzell, the city’s chief financial officer, told Governance Committee members that it would be best for the Transportation, Technology and Utilities Committee to seek input from other city departments such as the Office of Sustainability.

“We would like to do more study and analysis,” Gorzell said.

Nirenberg noted the city’s conservation record, but he also said continuing population and geographic growth would require a greater year-round approach to water conservation.

There could be some tension between SAWS and City Council if two different strategic water management and conservation plans are proposed since SAWS is the City’s water utility and has long maintained a strategic plan that is updated every five years. Nirenberg believes such strategic planning should lie with City Council.

“It’s no secret water is an important, precious resource that we have learned to conserve in a more efficient way,” Nirenberg said, acknowledging that SAWS is working on a number of initiatives to secure a long-term water supply. Some of those initiatives include aquifer storage and recovery, desalination of brackish water and the planned $3.4 billion Vista Ridge project, which will pipe in 50,000 acre-feet of water annually for at least 30 years from Burleson County east of Austin starting in 2020.

Some groups, including the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center and the local chapter of the Sierra Club, are worried Vista Ridge and other SAWS-led initiatives will result in higher water bills that burden low-income users.

The Council also is set to consider a proposed new SAWS rate structure that rewards conservation and low water usage with reduced water rates. The proposed rate design doubles the number of residential rate tiers to encourage less discretionary use. Some groups fear that the new water rate structure could adversely affect lower-income residential users.

Nirenberg said the Council has the authority to declare additional water restrictions, and the City will have to play a more active role in water management as growth continues.

“If we don’t focus on conservation now – the cheapest, easiest thing we can do – we won’t achieve filling any supply gaps,” he said.

Of all the constituent responses he has received on water policy, Nirenberg said, only three oppose greater water restrictions.

“This is vitally important. Some people say if we aren’t doing much more conservation already, what’s taken you so long?” he added.

Councilmembers Joe Krier (D9) and Rebecca Viagran (D3), both Governance Committee members, said they agree with Nirenberg in principle, but want more involvement by SAWS officials in the deliberations.

The potential financial impact of year-round Stage One restrictions needs to be measured in advance, they said.

“I do have a lot of questions, but rather than get into them now, I’d like to see the issue go through the proper process,” Krier said.

Viagran said water conservation in San Antonio has long been a way of life for many residents and businesses even “when we didn’t call it conservation.” The matter merits further review before the full Council considers a formal recommendation, she said.

Councilmember and Committee member Mile Gallagher (D10) said he, too, backs the city staff examining the city’s financial perspective.

“The deeper concern is not if we can afford to do this, but will we have any water left for our children and grandchildren to be secure,” Nirenberg said.

State Rep. Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio) voiced support for year-round conservation in a recent city press release.

“Maintaining once per week outdoor watering is a proven best water management practice,” Larson stated. “SAWS is looked upon as a leader in water conservation throughout the nation. Implementing a year-round once weekly outdoor watering policy would be a perfect next step in the utility’s conservation strategy.”

*Top image: Photo by Flickr user Robert V. 

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Committee Approves New SAWS Rate Structure

Proposed SAWS Rate Structure to Promote Conservation

Commentary: Who is Really Paying for SAWS Rate Structure?

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.