By Robert Rivard

There might be more entertaining things to do on a Saturday afternoon, but with one eye on the U.S. Women’s soccer team as they dominated Colombia in a physical 3-0 win, I also visited the Edward Aquifer Authority website to check the Bexar County  J-17 well.

The J-17 well is in the shed at the foot of the Fort Sam Houston water tower.

If water is a city’s lifeblood, then the J-17 well is the pulse of metro San Antonio. You’ve probably driven by the wellhead countless times. It’s located in a shed under the water tower at Fort Sam Houston.  It’s been there since 1956, replacing the well used since 1932. J-17 lies along a major flow channel of the Edwards Aquifer. Hydrologists say the site quickly rises and falls with pumpage and recharge and thus serves as an accurate measure of aquifer water supply.

Saturday’s well reading, a measure of relative water pressure, stood at 644.2 feet, 16.5 feet below the historical average for this calendar date, and falling. San Antonio is in Stage II water restrictions right now, which went into effect  when the J-17 well dropped below 650 feet.  Without August rains, the J-17 well likely will fall below 640 feet, triggering Stage III restrictions, reducing lawn watering to one day every other week.

Water and water conservation is a frequent topic on The Rivard Report, including a June 9 article, “Cheap Water: End of an Era,” which forecast a coming rate increase in 2013, and a day earlier, “Spills and Sprawl,” which examined the growing risk of sewage spills and other contaminants threatening the integrity of the recharge zone.

Over the years, the aquifer’s plenitude has lulled San Antonio into well-hydrated complacency. For decades, groundwater has been abundant, clean and cheap. Voters rejected efforts to develop surface water resources. Now, it’s about to get more complicated. City leaders and SAWS officials will soon have to address the simple fact that the city has outgrown its water supply. Any solution will require creativity, a willingness to stand down political opposition to rate increases, and a whole lot of communication with the public.

Right now San Antonio is not on a path to achieve the ambitious SA2020 goal of reducing per capita consumption to 116 gallons of water per day per household. In recent wet years, consumption has been as low as 124 gallons, but during the drought that number spiked to 149 gallons a day or even higher. In a city that sees itself as leader in terms of conservation, what more can be done?

Former St. Augustine lawn in Alamo Heights: a vibrant garden and edible landscape
In Alamo Heights: a vibrant, drought-tolerant garden and edible wildscape.

NO one at SAWS, City Hall  or the Bexar County Commissioners Court has an appetite for promoting the kind of changes that would allow San Antonio to conserve its way to the SA2020 goal. What would it take? A twofold plan to eliminate a significant percentage of non-native St. Augustine grass. Other cities in the arid Southwest have offered incentives to business and homeowners to replace existing grass lawns with wildscapes, and passed ordinances to limit grass lawns  that developers can install in new construction.

Landscape irrigation is the single big variable on the table. We’re already maxing out use of recycled non-potable water.  Most people who oppose such change, including many influential business leaders, believe the only alternative is Las Vegas-style gravel and cacti landscaping. A brown San Antonio, they argue, will scare off companies dependent on water.

Solarization: Don't scrimp on the mulch and newspapers
Converting grass to wildscape is easy with solarization. Use mulch on top of newspapers to kill grass and weeds.

I live with a master gardener, which means I’ve learned that solarizing your grass lawn and replacing it with a colorful, native wildscape is actually a highly desirable alternative, and something that is taking place in many other cities where conservation-minded individuals are moving away from automatic irrigation systems and water waste. In San Antonio, there is no public incentive  to encourage such change.

That leaves San Antonio with one other option: Find more water, something just about everyone in the state outside East Texas also is doing. In other words, it’s a competitive market; scarce available water will not be cheap.

SAWS already is expanding its water inventory. How? It’s building a brackish water treatment plant and continuing to recharge surplus aquifer water into underground ASR facilities, which are then reserved for use when primary water supplies require supplementation. Even those measures, however, are insufficient to meet future demand. That is why last year SAWS issued a so-called request for proposals from public and private entities with access to other alternative water supplies.

Since then, the process has been carried out beyond public view as SAWS initially reviewed nine proposals that it deemed plausible, and then pared the list down to four finalists announced in early April. Members of  City Council, who will have to approve the inevitable rate increase necessary to fund the purchase of outside water, have not seen the proposals or been briefed by SAWS. Should such an important decision be taken outside of public view, leaving voters and ratepayers unable to form their own judgements about such a fundamental change?

The closed-door process of deciding who in the secondary water market will be chosen by SAWS is supposed to occur as part of the utility’s process to update its 50-year comprehensive water management plan, which was supposed to be released this summer. It now appears that won’t happen until September or even later. The current 2009 Water Management Plan update available online is outdated; SAWS officials use more current data when briefing civic and business leaders.

Buying water from outside sources might be necessary, according to informed people I’ve spoken with, but ratepayers remain in the dark about the costs. New water will be expensive water: expensive to buy, to transport, to treat for impurities, and to move safely and efficiently around the SAWS service area. A city that sits atop an aquifer can drill wells at the point of demand. Not so with water brought in from elsewhere. A distribution and filtration system will have to be built. That is in addition to the hundreds of millions of dollars already needed for improvements to existing infrastructure to reduce untreated sewage spills and to control water leaks, which now account for nearly 15% of all SAWS water being pumped.

Public officials have a tough but necessary task ahead of them in educating ratepayers about the cost of securing our water future.

We will explore the issue on Oct. 10 when the San Antonio Clean Technology Forum stages another water symposium  that I will moderate before a live audience in San Antonio. KLRN-TV will broadcast an edited version of the symposium.

You don’t have to wait until then to watch a program that addresses many of the same issues at the state level. Texas Monthly organized and hosted a July 12 symposium in Austin that complemented an excellent special report, “The Last Drop,” published in the July edition of the magazine. Here is a link to “Life by the Drop: Solutions for the Looming Water Crisis in Texas,” the complete symposium video.

By the way, I just checked the unofficial J-17 live well reading. It’s down from 644.2 feet noted at the beginning of this article to 643.61 as I sign off.

Coming next: A look at more punitive pricing for major water users, and how that money could provide SAWS with much-needed infrastructure capital, and also ease the effect of a rate increase on low income ratepayers.

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