Huebner Creek in Stone Oak is usually a dry bed of bleached-white rocks. But this week, water from five counties away is gushing down the creek as testing begins on the San Antonio Water System’s much-anticipated Vista Ridge pipeline. 

Vista Ridge, a water pipeline set to deliver 16.3 billion gallons per year from underground aquifers northeast of Austin, is a SAWS project six years in the making. The water in Huebner Creek signals that the pipeline, after three years of construction, is almost ready for its April 15 operational start date.

At the utility’s January board meeting Tuesday, SAWS Vice President Donovan Burton said the testing underway this week is a chance to ensure the equipment, owned both by SAWS and the Vista Ridge companies, is functioning correctly before SAWS must begin paying for the water.

“We get to try out all the knobs and buttons and make sure everything works,” Burton said.

Vista Ridge’s 140-mile route ends at a site just south of Las Lomas Elementary School on Hardy Oak Boulevard north of Loop 1604, where two tanks store and blend water from Vista Ridge with the local groundwater SAWS has been pumping for decades. 

The pipeline begins at a set of wells tucked into the rolling farm country in Burleson and Milam counties. Longstanding concern remains among some in the source area that the pumping will draw down the sensitive aquifers that small towns, farmers, and ranchers rely on for drinking water and irrigation. Vista Ridge has permits from the Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District, which could cut back pumping if the aquifers’ water levels start dropping too quickly.

Curtis Chubb, a Milam County rancher who has been arguing against Vista Ridge for years, worries that SAWS and the Vista Ridge companies will try to influence Post Oak Savannah to stop any pumping cuts, even if they’re needed.

“What they’re counting on is that the groundwater district is going to continue approving all [pumping],” Chubb said. “If they get cut back at all, they’re going to use all the leverage they have and come back for more.”  

For now, SAWS is focused on getting ready to accept a new source of water that will make up around 20 percent of the city’s total supply. 

Flushing of the pipeline and water tanks before operations begin is a requirement under Texas environmental codes, said Gavino Ramos, SAWS’ vice president of communications, in an email.

“This is a very large and very long pipeline, so the process to prepare a large line for supplying drinking water requires a significant amount of flushing,” Ramos said. “Depending on the day, you may see significant flow, some, or no flow at all.”

The discharge to Huebner Creek comes as contractors work to finish tunnels in Stone Oak that will allow SAWS to integrate water from Vista Ridge into the central spine of its system. Those tunnels won’t be complete until summer 2020, according to SAWS. 

Until those tunnels are complete, Vista Ridge water can’t flow south, according to SAWS. Flushing and testing of the line are likely to continue for “several months,” after which SAWS can begin using the water, primarily sending it north into Stone Oak while work on the tunnels continues.

Payments for Vista Ridge water that begin April 15 are set to add up to roughly $220,000 per day. At nearly $2,000 per acre-foot, Vista Ridge will be some of the most expensive water SAWS has access to. Water from the Edwards Aquifer, San Antonio’s mainstay, costs SAWS anywhere from $386 and $704 per acre-foot. 

However, the Vista Ridge contract fixes the price for 30 years, which SAWS officials have long said allows San Antonio to have water in future times of scarcity at today’s prices. After 30 years of operation by outside companies, SAWS will take over the pipeline in 2050.

A revolving set of companies has made up the Vista Ridge consortium since negotiations began in 2014. Spanish conglomerate Abengoa was the original project company, but its bankruptcy in 2016 led to Kansas City, Missouri-based Garney Construction, a longtime SAWS contractor, to take over a majority stake in the project. 

At the SAWS meeting Tuesday, Burton introduced executives from two firms relatively new to the project – Ridgewood Infrastructure, the investment firm that will financially manage the pipeline, and Canadian utilities manager EPCOR, which will operate it. 

“We’re beginning a 30-year partnership with you, so it’s best if you learn more about what kind of company we are,” EPCOR USA President Joe Gysel told the SAWS board. 

EPCOR and SAWS share similar origin stories – as municipal utilities. EPCOR started as the utility for the City of Edmonton in Canada’s Alberta province before expanding its enterprises across North America. In 2018, Garney and others tapped EPCOR to operate Vista Ridge. 

Ridgewood has been a part of the project since 2017 and was involved with electing EPCOR, Ridgewood partner Michael Albrecht said. He described his company as “one of the oldest investment managers focusing on real assets,” such as water pipelines, pump stations, electric transmission lines, and treatment plants. It manages assets in Texas, New York, and New Jersey, Albrecht said. 

Also at the meeting, SAWS trustees approved a three-member budget panel that will review the flow of water from Vista Ridge to SAWS and the flow of money from SAWS to the Vista Ridge companies under the terms of the pipeline contract. 

Among the new members is Jun Chang, deputy general manager of the North Harris County Regional Water Authority, who is SAWS’ appointee. The Garney-led Vista Ridge consortium picked Elisa Sparanza, a New Orleans-based water consultant and former senior vice president of engineering firm CH2M. All parties agreed on Bill Davis, the third panelist, a retired senior project manager for Black and Veatch, a Kansas City, Kansas-based engineering firm. 

Each was chosen for a three-year term, with annual compensation of $45,000 plus travel expenses for 2020 and $40,000 and travel for 2021 and 2022. The SAWS board also approved funding for the panel not to exceed $457,500 over a three-year period. 

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