After a briefing on the results of a controversial water report Thursday morning, members of City Council had a series of questions for the report’s author, City staff, as well as San Antonio Water System President and CEO Robert Puente. In addition to SAWS’ hotly-debated proposals to increase and restructure rates, the Water Policy Report has reignited the debate surrounding the need for the Vista Ridge project.
Roel Lopez, director of Texas A&M’s Institute for Renewable Natural Resources, led a team of institute authors to complete the final report that, he said, fixed several errors in the leaked draft report’s analysis. Click here to download his presentation.
The method used by draft report author Calvin Finch to analyze 12 current and future water supply projects and 24 water issues relating to San Antonio’s water future Lopez said, was like comparing “apples to oranges” when ranking and grading.
“We fixed the scorecard,” he said, explaining that the final report removed measures of analysis that could not be evenly spread across projects and issues. “We’re not saying those things don’t mater, but we’d have to do it on a project by project basis.”
(Read more about what has changed between the draft and final reports: Final Water Report Author: Errors of Draft ‘Fixed’.)
The Council’s vote on the rate changes, which has already been delayed so the report could be reviewed by Council and the community, is scheduled for next Thursday, Nov. 19. Environmental and social activist groups are calling for another delay, which would allow more community input and research on the changes and the 142-mile Vista Ridge water pipeline that ratepayers would begin to pay for in 2016.
Representatives from the local chapter of the Sierra Club, Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, League of Independent Voters of Texas, and others have expressed their opposition to the Vista Ridge project and rate changes. They’ll do so again during a public hearing City Council chambers at 6 p.m., an hour before the meeting outside the Municipal Plaza Building. There are concerns over the environmental sustainability of taking 16 billion gallons of water from Burleson County’s Carrizo Aquifer to San Antonio every year for at least 30 years.
One of the recommendations of the report is that the Vista Ridge project should undergo an in-depth analysis of its own, something that protesters of the project generally agree with.
“I am so sad. I am so disillusioned. I am so disappointed. I am so angry,” Esperanza Executive Director Graciela Sanchez told Council members, at times on the verge of tears. “(At the) fast-tracking that City Council and SAWS has engaged in to move forward in projects and policies that hurt the middle class, working class, the poor.”
Sanchez said there were too few easily accessible public meetings for the Vista Ridge project before its approval in October 2014, and the proposed rate change vote next Thursday. SAWS is seeking a rate increase of 7.5% in 2016 and 7.9% in 2017.
Puente defended the transparency of the process by listing off several meetings and opportunities in which the community was invited to give feedback.
Both reports gave the City of San Antonio an “A” for public input, noted Councilmember Joe Krier (D9). He joined Ron Nirenberg (D8) and others in praise of SAWS’ community engagement efforts.
“I have never seen a public contract of this magnitude negotiated (so thoroughly),” Krier said. “If that’s not transparency, then I don’t know what is.”
But he knows what it isn’t, he said, turning his comments to those in opposition.
“Transparency is not ‘do what I want,’” he said. “Listening is not the same as ‘do what I want.’”
The majority, 99% according to Puente, of bill increases are going to other projects including brackish water desalination plant and mandatory replacement and maintenance of sewer lines.
Finch, who has since retired from the institute, did not sign up to speak, but was asked to contribute by several Council members. He disagrees with Lopez’ apples to apples approach to comparing vastly different projects and again called for the five scientific review panelists to be named in the name of complete transparency.
“I’m pretty proud of this whole process and the original version of the report,” he said.
At the end of the day, the report is not what Nirenberg called for in February 2014. What was supposed to be a snapshot of where San Antonio’s water security stands has become far more nuanced document. In the interest of transparency, both the work and conclusions from Finch’s draft and the Institute’s final report have been are included in the final report. Lopez, however, gave a nod to Finch’s work.
“The contributions of Dr. Finch to this report were sizable,” Lopez said. “We picked up at a staring point and took it across the finish line.”
*Top image: Calvin Finch answers questions from City Council about the final Water Policy Report on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015. Photo by Iris Dimmick.