Who is in charge at the San Antonio Water System as major water supply policies are about to be set for the next decade and beyond? The answer, for the moment, is evident only to a handful of senior SAWS executives, board trustees, city officials and business leaders.
For the public, the experience has been akin to watching a film with the sound turned on and off, leaving ratepayers struggling to track and understand the process. Yet the future availability and price of water for San Antonio is one of the most important looming issues for the city’s leadership and its citizens.
It’s actually a multi-billion dollar question as SAWS, the city’s water utility, considers an on-then-off-and-now-on-again, long-term water purchase from a private water supplier. That’s one reason why Tuesday’s 9 a.m. meeting of the SAWS board of trustees is so important.
Another is because the decision comes at the same time the SAWS board is set to approve the initial capital expenditures for a $297 million, three-phase brackish water desalination project in southern Bexar County that will deliver 12,210 acre-feet of water in 2016, and by completion of Phase II in 2021, and Phase III in 2026, 28,000 acre-feet of water, enough to supply about 85,000 households a year.
SAWS projects the cost of that water to be slightly more than $1,000 an acre-feet, based on the $109.4 million contract it is expected to approve at Tuesday’s board meeting for the Zachry Parsons construction consortium to build Phase I of the desal plant. Some observers believe the $1,000 an acre-foot estimate is unrealistically low, with Wilcox Aquifer extraction well drilling and pipeline construction costs bound to drive that price higher.
The acre-foot cost of new water supplies matters, of course, because it will determine how steeply rates to residential and commercial users climb in the coming years. Ratepayers and elected officials are accustomed to low water rates in San Antonio where 90% of the city’s drinking water is pumped from the Edwards Aquifer at a cost of $350-400 an acre foot.
The cost of privately supplied water pipelined to SAWS also will come at a much higher cost.
In the space of one short month, SAWS has abandoned and then resurrected its four-year-old plan to contract with a private sector regional water supplier capable of delivering 50,000 acre-feet of water annually, enough to satisfy the water needs of 150,000 households. The cost of that water would be $85 million a year if priced at an average of $1,700 an acre-foot, a figure supplied to me by one source close to the project. One acre-foot of water is enough to supply three average households for a year. If SAWS and the private supplier enter into a long-term, 30-year contract, the total cost could be more than $2.5 billion.
A four-year bid process came down to three finalists selected last year, and then came down to one: the Vista Ridge Consortium, a partnership of the Spanish conglomerate Abengoa Water and Blue Water Systems, an Austin and San Antonio-based investor group, that promises to pipe in water from the Carrizo and Queen City aquifers in Lee and Burleson counties east of Austin.
Vista Ridge already is pumping and piping water from the aquifers to a number of suburban communities northeast of Austin.
Three weeks ago, SAWS CEO Robert Puente used an appearance at a UTSA-sponsored water forum to suddenly announce he wanted to shelf the pipeline project and instead expand plans for the desalination plant in South Bexar County in conjunction with a a new joint initiative with CPS Energy to construct a natural gas-powered plant that would benefit both SAWS and CPS ratepayers.
At the time, Puente said uncertainty surrounding state laws governing underground water districts water and other regulatory issues made the project a bad risk. The flip-flop left onlookers a bit stunned. Various business leaders protested the decision to Mayor Julián Castro, who sits on the SAWS board, and who appeared to support continuation of the project.
Now, as the SAWS board prepares to meet, the deal is back on with Puente quoted as telling the Express-News his public suggestion to kill the project was merely a negotiating tactic.
Given his original reasoning and the sudden turnabout, not many are likely to believe him. Some say Puente’s original public statement was driven by a determination inside his SAWS or among board trustees that an expanded desalination project would yield water at a lower cost than the pipeline project, an assumption that now seems less certain.
Business and civic leaders are definitely making themselves heard in favor of the pipeline project, lobbying hard to diversify the city’s water sources, fearing a replay of the city’s decision decades ago not to buy available Canyon Lake water at a low cost to augment Edwards Aquifer water
The current deliberations have unfolded in a way that has left the public in the dark, wondering who is in charge and what facts and projections are driving the decision-making process.
For six years, Puente has served as CEO and president of SAWS, an executive with a unique mix of political and public policy skills. Puente is a former state legislator who specialized in water policy and has served effectively through a continuing historic drought, and now, an unprecedented effort to diversity the city’s water supply from San Antonio’s traditional reliance on the Edwards Aquifer.
Developments in recent weeks, however, have led many to ask who is driving the city’s strategic, longterm water planning.
Is Puente leading, or is it Mayor Julián Castro and City Council? Or is it the SAWS board of trustees, led by its chair, Berto Guerra, a Toyota supplier and Castro confidant, and former City Councilman Reed Williams, a retired energy executive and recently appointed SAWS trustee?
Item 23 of the board’s Tuesday agenda only adds to the intrigue:
A Resolution rejecting the proposals of Dimmit Utility Water Supply Corporation and V. V. Water Company, LLC, for alternative water supplies in response to Solicitation No. P-11-003-DS (Request for Competitive Sealed Proposals regarding the provision and delivery of alternative water supplies, or Solicitation); directing the President/Chief Executive Officer together with the System’s Board Chairman and Trustee W. Reed Williams to meet with the Vista Ridge Consortium regarding its proposal in response to the Solicitation and in accordance with this Resolution; directing the President/Chief Executive Officer to make a recommendation and propose action to the Board regarding final disposition of the Vista Ridge Consortium proposal and the Solicitation at a future Board Meeting.
A negotiating team that includes board chair Guerra and board trustee Williams in addition to Puente seems to indicate the SAWS board rather than staff will drive the process. Citizens deserve to know.
San Antonio’s efforts to diversify and secure its water supply in recent years have been focused on water conservation and wastewater recycling, underground storage of excess Edwards supply in recharge wells, plans for brackish water desalination and the private pipeline contract.
Water Conservation and Management
SAWS is a national leader on the conservation and recycling front. Sustained incentive programs and education initiatives over the years have yielded significant reductions in per capita water consumption. One major source of water usage – lawn irrigation – has escaped the strictest available conservation measures. Water restrictions in time of drought limit lawn irrigation to specific days and hours. Heavy water users are charged a premium for excess usage, but most customers find it a price worth paying rather than a financial disincentive to limit usage.
SAWS officials have used the utility’s Twin Oaks Aquifer Storage and Recovery facility in southern Bexar County at the same site where the desal plant will be constructed to store unneeded water pumped from the Edwards Aquifer in wet months, and then withdrawing it from the underground wells to supplant aquifer water when drought conditions lead the Edwards Aquifer Authority to mandate pumping restrictions. That strategy enabled SAWS and the City to limit water use restrictions to Phase II last year rather than impose Phase III. Still, SAWS officials expect Phase III restriction to take effect by late spring if the current drought conditions persist.
San Antonio remains a city where only true crisis could change landscaping irrigation allowances. Some business and civic leaders defend the water costs of protecting non-native, St. Augustine grass lawns, arguing that job creation and economic growth are linked to the city’s green look. Suburban council members, in particular, represent this viewpoint while inner city council members focus more on managing rate increases for the city’s large working class population.
If San Antonio were to adopt more stringent landscaping and watering policies, such as those found in other cities in the Southwest, some but not all of the city’s projected future water needs could be met though conservation. An interim step that Castro and City Council could take now would be to pass an ordinance prohibiting neighborhood associations from requiring turf lawns and automatic sprinkler systems. That move, coupled with enhanced incentives by SAWS to promote replacement of non-native turf with native wildscapes, could reduce usage in the hottest summer months when falling water levels in the Edwards Aquifer lead to lawn irrigation restrictions.
Still, even such conservation measures would not meet all the water needs of one of the fastest growing metro areas in the country. That’s why SAWS action in expanding its sources of available water are so critical.
The San Antonio Chamber of Commerce released a report on Friday that states the obvious: an uncertain water future will damage the economy and cost jobs. You can access the report here.
*Featured/top photo courtesy of Rocket Science Video and the Edwards Aquifer Authority.