Brooks City-Base signature gateway. Courtesy photo.
Brooks City-Base signature gateway.

Environmental groups called foul this week when the City of San Antonio Zoning Commission approved a plan to rezone a section of Brooks City Base to make way for a possible water bottling plant on Tuesday. The fast-tracked rezoning request was on the agenda for City Council to vote on Thursday, but according to staff, Brooks City Base requested that the vote be postponed. The zoning case will be pulled from Thursday’s agenda to be considered in August.

South Texas is known for long periods of drought and with the rate increases from the Vista Ridge water pipeline deal in sight, a water bottling plant is incongruous with the City’s long-term environmental concerns, stated Meredith McGuire, a professor at Trinity University, and co-chair of the Alamo Sierra Club Conservation Committee in an email.

District 8 Councilmember Ron Nirenberg
Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8). Photo by Scott Ball.

“I’m anxiously awaiting a briefing with SAWS and will push for it if it doesn’t happen soon,” Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8) said.

Before a vote by Council, there needs to be more due diligence on the City’s part since Brooks City Base receives substantial funding from the City and SAWS is a public utility, he said. “There is accountability there. … There is absolutely indirect involvement (with the City).”

UPDATED on June 4 at 1 p.m.: Between agenda items during Thursday’s meeting Councilmember Rebecaca Viagran, who represents District 3 where Brooks City Base is located, said she’ll be looking into the specifics of the rezoning and water bottling plant. 

“It’s strictly a zoning case, going from military zoning to (light industrial) because that is what is in the Brooks development and land use plan,” Viagran said. “I’m out of town on June 18, so we wanted to move this forward.”

District 3 Councilmember Rebecca Viagran speaks at Mission Solar Energy's opening ceremonies. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Councilmember Rebecca Viagran (D3) speaks at Mission Solar Energy’s opening ceremonies in Brooks City Base in September 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The water bottling company’s interest in the property brought up questions, she said. “I’d like to sit down and have more conversations with SAWS and to have those questions answered. … Brooks is doing a lot of great things out there and I’m happy about that. We just need to make sure that the land use plan and development is moving forward.” 

Council recesses for a month-long break at the end of June, so the rezoning request will have to wait until August.

Zoning matters are supposed to be about land use, not to cast judgment on specific potential companies that want to build. The latter is an economic development issue – but the water bottling company’s proposal “doesn’t meet the economic threshold for jobs” to show up on the Economic Development Department‘s radar, Nirenberg said. “It certainly is not of such great import that we need to fast track it in 48 hours.”

The first phase of the Niagara Bottling plant would bring 75-100 jobs in 2016, then double to 200 jobs by completion in 2019.

Leading up to the vote in August, Nirenberg said, “the competitive elements of an economic development deal are traditionally discussed in executive session. However, the implications for our water supply need to be discussed in full public view.”

Meredith McGuire, professor emerita at Trinity University and local Sierra Club spokesperson.
Meredith McGuire, professor emerita at Trinity University and local Sierra Club spokesperson.

“San Antonio is in a semi-arid region and must prepare for the highly probable occurrence of a 35-year-long mega-drought within this century,” McGuire, of the Sierra Club, stated during the Zoning Commission meeting on Tuesday. “The City cannot afford to allow such huge drain of its water resources. Vista Ridge cannot solve the problem – and that water is not certain until San Antonio has vetted the project for financial closure. SAWS should not approve use of San Antonio water by any business that would make major demands for water, even during severe drought.”

What companies move to San Antonio and how much water they use is out of SAWS’ hands, said Gavino Ramos, SAWS vice president of communications and external affairs, on Wednesday.

“At the end of the day, we support economic development for San Antonio by providing water to our customers – regardless of what company it is,” Ramos said. “We’re actually mandated to provide them service (if they are within the SAWS service area).”

Once complete, the plant will use about 2,500 acre feet of water per year, he said, and the water is and will be there if the project goes through.

“(Niagara Bottling) came to us as a potential customer (as they were) trying to identify possible locations,” Ramos added. SAWS staff ran the numbers for what their bill would potentially look like. “We did what we would do for any company” thinking about moving to San Antonio.

According to the Express-News, Brooks Development Authority President and CEO Leo Gomez said the Ontario Calif.-based company has narrowed down considerations of their next location to two cities: San Antonio and another city in the region.

Zoning commissioners Susan Heard and Francine Romero voted against the change; the other seven in favor, most agreeing that the zoning change from “regional commercial” to “light industrial” was appropriate for the redeveloping former military base. Plans are underway to rezone most of Brooks City Base to accommodate a changing land dynamic and increase of residential projects.

Vianna Davila reports: “I’m not saying it’s bad,” Romero said, “I’m just saying people don’t have information.”

Dr. Francine Romero at the panel discussion “Conversations on Water,” at UTSA. Photo by Scott Ball.
Francine Romero, associate dean for the College of Public Policy at UTSA, served as a panelist for “Conversations on Water,” at UTSA on April 1, 2015. Photo by Scott Ball.

The above article was published on Wednesday, June 3.

Background From Previous Coverage

By Robert Rivard:

The plant would provide SAWS with a major new commercial customer at a time when the water utility is in the market for partners to share the annual purchasing costs of the 50,000 acre-feet that will be delivered from Burleson County starting in 2019 or 2020 via the Vista Ridge water purchase and pipeline deal.

Niagara, despite its name, is a West Coast company that purifies water by removing lime and other mineral deposits, as well as fluoride from water, and then bottles it for sale at a price point that is many times over the cost of the same water delivered by tap. Some of its products include additives, such as vitamins, to enhance consumer appeal.

H-E-B is among Niagara’s many national customers for its privately labeled bottled water. The company’s products include bottled water, sparkling water, vitamin-infused water and sports drinks, one local source said. H-E-B’s Hill Country Fare bottled water comes from Niagara’s California bottling operations, a source said. If Niagara establishes operations here, H-E-B bottled water would be sourced locally from SAWS.

For the water utility, Niagara represents both an economic development opportunity and an environmental challenge. SAWS famously serves Edwards Aquifer water at its own headquarters rather than bottled water in disposable plastic bottles, and initiatives at both City Hall and the San Antonio Independent School District have been made to eliminate bottled water served to officeholders during official meetings. For a water utility that rightfully prides itself on its national reputation for water conservation and management, some inside and outside SAWS are asking whether a bottled water company is the best use of an abundant water supply in a region subject to cyclical droughts and water shortages.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the issue could also be discussed by the Council’s Economic Development and Community Committee. These types of items do no typically go through committee.

*Featured/top image: Brooks City Base signature gateway. Courtesy photo.

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Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...