Robert Puente, president and CEO of San Antonio Water System (SAWS), remains hopeful that the Vista Ridge pipeline will help secure a long-term water supply for the fast-growing San Antonio metro area, and believes that ratepayers are fully protected in the event the consortium proving the water and building the pipeline are unable to deliver. Critics fear the project designed to deliver up to 50,000 acre-feet of water annually for 30 years by 2020 will only spur more urban sprawl and traffic in an already congested region.
During a panel discussion, “Conversations on Water,” Wednesday at the University of Texas at San Antonio Downtown Campus, Puente also said the Vista Ridge Consortium is doing what is required to finalize financial arrangements, designs and engineering five months after the deal was unanimously approved by City Council.
The consortium partnership between Abengoa, a Spain-based publicly traded company, and Austin firm Blue Water Systems involves 3,400 leases for water rights with local landowners in Burleson and Milam counties. The 142-mile-long pipeline the consortium will design and construct will deliver enough water to service 162,000 new families in the San Antonio area, increasing SAWS’ water inventory by 20%.
“We are in the process of making sure we have pipelines and storage that can accept all that water into our system for distribution,” Puente said. SAWS is also on the lookout for regional partners with their own future water needs that are willing to share in the annual purchase of the water.
Moderator and Rivard Report Director Robert Rivard said policymakers and other stakeholders must consider an array of factors, including economic development and environmental impact as the project proceeds.
“This is the first deal of its kind in Texas where a substantial amount of water is being transferred from Point A to Point B,” he added.
Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8) said he understands the city needs a reliable long-range water supply to maintain its growth rate and to prepare for future drought. But he stressed the importance of factoring projections for water demand and availability into the City’s long-term comprehensive growth plans, an initiative he is chairing.
Nirenberg also said there’s a need to stress conservation even as SAWS undertakes projects to reduce the city’s reliance on the Edwards Aquifer, including construction of the largest brackish water desalination plant in then nation. Phase one of the deal project will come online in 2016, with final build-out scheduled for 2025.
“If we don’t act now to supply these growing urban centers down the line, we may end up harming those communities, San Antonio and Texas,” Nirenberg said.
Puente said SAWS has always considered conservation a centerpiece of the water utility’s strategy and currently is focusing on outdoor water conservation by helping users make water irrigation systems more efficient and less prone to waste.
Two conservation propositions await local voters on the May 9 City Election ballot, with early voting April 27-May 5. Voters will be asked to continue supporting a 1/8 cent sales tax that funds aquifer protection and creation of linear creekway parks. Voters have overwhelmingly approved the sales tax in five-year increments three different times, going back to 2000.
Dr. Francine Romero, associate dean of UTSA’s College of Public Policy, told fellow panelists she fears Props 1 and 2 could “get lost in the election shuffle,” despite a current campaign advocating support for renewing the sales tax. The propositions serve to remind voters of the importance of protecting watersheds and recharge zones, in Bexar County and over the recharge zone extending southwest in Uvalde and Medina counties, she said.
Richard Perez, president and CEO of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, said his organization supports both Vista Ridge and Props 1 and 2, viewing them as tools to balance environmental protection and economic development. Puente noted that other major water development projects have failed to materialize in the past, and even if Vista Ridge does succeed, water management, diversification of supply and conservation will remain permanent challenges.
Nirenberg noted that water security is a regional issue, and how neighboring communities fare is important to San Antonio.
“We want to make sure we grow as a community in a way that’s respectful to our neighbors,” Nirenberg said.
Romero said that her research suggest widespread uncertainty about the larger issues raised by interbasin water transfers, and that emotion and territorial imperative sometimes trump science and hydrology.
One audience member, Alan Montemayor, said during the question-and-answer session that he fears San Antonio with Vista Ridge could set off the kind of water wars that California experienced as Los Angeles secure major interbasin water acquisitions.
“Why would San Antonio fuel more of this growth along (Interstate) 35?” he asked. Rivard and the panelists discussed whether San Antonio’s growth and attempts at expanding its water supply are mere prompts for more people and businesses to move to the city. That topic took on a life of its own on two fronts in the media on Wednesday.
The Rivard Report reported that California-based Niagara Bottling, a bottled water company, is considering expansion to San Antonio or Jackson, Mississippi and possibly one other southeastern U.S. city. Brooks City Base would be the likely site if San Antonio is tapped, and if SAWS and the city agree to a deal.
“A new bottled water plant would produce only 75-100 hourly wage jobs, but would provide SAWS with a major new commercial customer at a time when the water utility is in the market for partners to share the annual purchasing costs of the 50,000 acre-feet that will be delivered from Burleson County starting in 2019 or 2020 via the Vista Ridge water purchase and pipeline deal,” Rivard wrote in the article.
News of the Niagara interest has drawn mostly negative reaction on comments posted to the story and seemingly little enthusiasm among the panelists, who noted the City would be unlikely to offer incentives to a company with large water needs that would create less than 100 hourly wage jobs. The Niagara news broke on the heels of reports that California Gov. Jerry Brown has ordered mandatory water restrictions designed to cut water usage by 25 percent statewide.
“This is precisely the issue we are tying to address in a comprehensive plan,” Nirenberg said, referring to integrating a more proactive approach to long-term water and development planning.
Romero said developers can circumvent most obstacles except a lack of water, and that Vista Ridge – if successful – could spark more development between Austin and San Antonio, especially in places where growth otherwise could not be made possible. Other panelists suggested such development is inevitable with our without a Vista Ridge project.
Nirenberg added that, in his mind, SAWS – and to a greater extent San Antonio’s infrastructure – is working to spur greater urban infill development and density as a counterweight to more expensive suburban sprawl.
“We have already incentivized infill through impact fees and (tax increment financing),” he said. “Density is far more sustainable in urban communities. We want to make sure we’re fueling the kind of growth that’s sustainable.”
Perez said growth is inevitable and that communities are investing in themselves to support growth, but “to do so smartly by planning” is the key.
Yet another concern in the Vista Ridge saga is an unknown – at what rate would local ratepayers support the risk that SAWS is taking on the project. Puente said SAWS is currently looking at expanding the current tiered rate system to eight tiers, with an eye towards minimizing impact on low-income users and ratepayers who demonstrate strong conservation practices. Puente added SAWS’ rate committee will settle on rate recommendations in the next month or so, expecting the council to review them later this summer.
The forum was poorly attended with barely one-third of the auditorium seats occupied, with a noticeable absence of students in the audience.
*Featured/top image: “Conversations on Water,” at UTSA. Photo by Scott Ball.