The $3.4 billion Vista Ridge water pipeline deal that promises to deliver 16 billion gallons of water from Burleson County’s Carrizo Aquifer to San Antonio every year for at least 30 years, was unanimously approved one year ago this month by City Council. But challenges by some critics and environmental groups to the project’s financial structure and opposition to interbasin water transfers has touched off a new round of debate at the same time City Council and the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) are moving toward a rate increase to help pay for the project.
The debate comes in the wake of a City Council funded draft report on San Antonio’s long-term water needs and resources that is the subject of equally heated debate as it undergoes a peer review by Texas A&M University water experts.
Two scheduled forums, as well as a host of public input sessions, will provide ample opportunity for voices on all sides of the debate to be heard.
Wednesday night’s free panel discussion at the UTSA Main Campus is being hosted by the Hill Country Alliance. A ticketed luncheon event at the Pearl Stable is being hosted by the San Antonio Clean Technology Forum. SAWS and the city, meanwhile, continue to gather community input through a series of public meetings.
Texas Water Symposium (Wednesday, Oct. 21)
The Texas Water Symposium is scheduled to for Wednesday, 7 p.m.at UTSA’s Main Building, 1 UTSA Circle near Loop 1604. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. Moderator Neena Satija, an investigative reporter for The Texas Tribune, will lead a panel discussion focused on the SAWS/Vista Ridge pipeline with key players in San Antonio’s water policy and future. The five panelists are:
- Robert Puente, SAWS president and CEO
- Alan Dutton Ph.D., PG, hydro geologist and associate professor at UTSA’s Department of Geological Sciences.
- Calvin Finch Ph.D., formerly with the Texas A&M University Institute of Renewable Natural Resources (IRNR) and author of the controversial draft of the IRNR’s Water Policy Study that was leaked to the media last month.
- Sharlene Leurig, director of the Sustainable Water Infrastructure Program at Ceres.
- Annalisa Peace, executive director of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance.
Meanwhile, the water study, which few have read but many are debating, is undergoing a scientific peer review process for completion by the end of October. Finch has officially retired from the IRNR and director Raul Lopez has taken over the process. Lopez has said the essence of the study and its findings will not be changed, but that the public and council members can expect lengthy notes from researchers and expanded explanations of water projects and issues outlined in the report.
Council members have opted to delay a vote on proposed rate increases until after the report is complete.
The Texas Water Symposium, now in its seventh year, will be recorded and aired on Texas Public Radio one week after the live event. The Symposium is a partnership project of the University of Texas at San Antonio, Schreiner University, Texas Tech University, Texas Public Radio, and the Hill Country Alliance.
Water Forum VI: A Catalyst for the Future (Monday, Oct. 26)
The San Antonio Clean Technology Forum is hosting its sixth water forum next Monday, 11:30 a.m., at the Pearl Stable. Doors open at 10 a.m. for informational booths and networking opportunities and the lunch program will take place from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tickets are $60 and can be purchase online here.
While Vista Ridge and the pending water report will be on the tip of most tongues, moderator and Rivard Report Director Robert Rivard will guide the conversation to regional and statewide issues as well as other SAWS initiatives, major water projects funded by the Texas Water Development Board, and Texas A&M University-San Antonio‘s (A&M-SA) water education and research initiative.
Mayor Ivy Taylor and Texas A&M University-San Antonio President Cynthia Teniente-Matson will give opening remarks to introduce the panel which includes:
- Robert R. Puente, SAWS president and CEO.
- Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8), who initiated the Water Policy Study in February 2014.
- Andrew Sansom, director of the Meadows Center for Water and The Environment.
- Bech Bruun, chair of the Texas Water Development Board.
- Laura Huffman, Texas director of the Nature Conservancy.
Stay tuned to the Rivard Report for our coverage of Wednesday and Monday’s events.
More Public Meetings (Wednesday, Oct. 21-Wednesday, Nov. 18)
SAWS continues to host public information sessions to address questions about new rate structures and the water study in the lead up to Nov. 19, when City Council will vote on new rates. All meetings begin at 6 p.m.:
- Wednesday, Oct. 21 at SAWS Headquarters, Tower 2, 800 U.S. Highway 281 North
- Monday, Oct. 26 at Port San Antonio Conference Center, 102 Mabry St.
The study also will be discussed during three City Council meetings, also open to the public:
- 9 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 12, City Council A Session: water policy study briefing by IRNR
- 6 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 12, City Council A Session: citizens to be heard (public comment)
- 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 18, City Council B Session: citizens to be heard (public comment)
Customers are looking at a projected average monthly rate hike of 7.5% in 2016, and 7.9% in 2017. The rate adjustments assume integration of rates and infrastructure in 2017 from the former Bexar Metropolitan Water District, which SAWS acquired in 2012. The increased revenue will be used to pay for the Vista Ridge water pipeline, operation costs of the new desalinization plant, and sewer line improvements to meet a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mandate.
The draft report rates the Vista Ridge project as “high risk,” although supporters challenge the accuracy of the metrics used to gauge the project’s risk and said the report contains critical errors. Finch, the report’s author, also notes at the same time that if San Antonio were not to go forward with Vista Ridge it would have to acquire similar quantities of water elsewhere. He did not identify any available alternative sources.
Vista Ridge was unanimously approved by City Council last October, but the report has re-opened the debate over the 142-mile pipeline project, the sustainability of drawing water from Burleson County, and the financial stability of Abengoa, the Spain-based engineering and construction company that’s leading the Vista Ridge consortium. The financial underpinning of the project is based on SAWS strong credit rating and ability to borrow in the bond market, not Abengoa’s credit rating.
*Top image: San Antonio Clean Technology Forum’s “Mexico’s Historic Energy Reforms: An Opportunity for Texas,” on May 13, 2014 at the Pearl Stable. Photo by Ryan Beltrán.